A little bit naughty and a whole lotta nice is what you're going to get with writer/director David E. Talbert's latest film and the latest film in the growing sub-genre of African-American themed holiday films, Almost Christmas.
Fitting somewhere alongside the rhythmic and warm This Christmas, forever now known as the warm n' fuzzy film that featured Chris Brown before the Rihanna incident ruined his family friendly rep, Almost Christmas may very well top that film for warm n' fuzziness while telling a story that should appeal universally. The film stars two criminally under-utilized talents, Danny Glover and Academy Award winner Mo'Nique (Precious), in what is your fairly typical dysfunctional family holiday fare where you pretty much know what's going to happen from beginning to end but enjoy the ride thanks to a fine ensemble cast that gets Talbert's vision for the film and has fun with it.
Glover is Walter Meyers, the grieving patriarch of a wildly dysfunctional family that he has pulled together five days before Christmas in their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama in an effort to restore the holiday spirit to a dysfunctional family further broken apart by the passing of the matriarch.
If it sounds like Almost Christmas is going to be your usual run-of-the-mill holiday flick, you're partially correct. Almost Christmas has the cornball familial humor we've come to expect from African-American themed family films along with the expected warm n' fuzzy feelings underneath the surface and the lightly treated conflicts that are always resolved by film's end.
So, yeah. That's pretty typical.
The film soars on the strength of its cast, most notably Mo'Nique, whose performance as Aunt May seems to be simultaneously be providing the film's emotional cornerstone while also screaming out "Remember me, Hollywood?" Indeed, Mo'Nique's performance here is surprisingly honest and emotionally resonant in a role that could have so easily been a one-note joke.
Glover has never been a remarkably showy actor and the same is true here. As Walter, Glover gives the film its reason for being and a core of authenticity. While we've certainly seen the "I just want to have a family Christmas" storyline over and over again, Glover gives it all a freshness and a heartfelt sincerity.
While the film's core performances have a surprising depth to them, rest assured that there's much fun to be found in Almost Christmas. Kimberly Elise shines as Dr. Cheryl Meyers, whose marriage to a former NBA star, Lonnie (J.B. Smoove), as he tries desperately to hold onto the glory days that are largely in the past. Jessie T. Usher shines as one of the youngest of the Meyer clan, a college football star quietly grieving but trying to hide it. Gabrielle Union is fine, though her character underdeveloped, as the recently divorced Rachel, whose struggles as a single parent dominate the screen time along with her unexplained tensions with Cheryl. Because every African-American themed film seems to have one character who can't seem to set aside work, Romany Malco is here as Christian, a Congressional candidate whose distractions will eventually have to be confronted.
Almost Christmas isn't a brilliant film, though it's an entertaining and satisfying one. For capturing all the joys and pains of the holiday spirit, there's not much better than a well made, heartfelt and humorous African-American themed film. They're a joy and most often devoid of the usual cloying faux conflicts and contrived situations often found in other holiday films. J.B. Smoove is a gem here, his comic timing providing the film with a lightness of being and relentless spirit, while Jessie Usher seemingly takes that spot once held by Chris Brown and adds limitless charm and sincerity.
If you've ever longed for the holidays like you once had, Almost Christmas is a film for you. Unashamedly sentimental and open-hearted, it's another warm and winning film from Talbert and a reminder that Hollywood should be knocking on Glover and Mo'Nique's doors a whole lot more often.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic