Directed by David E. Talbert.
2016. Rated PG-13, 111 minutes.
J. B. Smoove
Nicole Ari Parker
John Michael Higgins
DC Young Fly
Let's start with the obvious. Merry Christmas. I couldn't let the day pass without giving you some well wishes. And a movie review, of course. This review actually starts long before I got to see the movie in question.
A few months ago, Mrs. Dell and I went to see When the Bough Breaks. Near the end of a particular trailer that played during the previews, I braced myself by gripping the butter encrusted armrests tightly as possible, leaning back hard, and wincing. Sure enough, the words I dreaded came from my wonderful wife. "Oh, we gotta see that!" That simple sentence sealed my fate. I would inevitably wind up sitting in a theater watching it, against my better cinematic judgement. When the time came, there I was watching something that wasn't quite as terrible as I expected, but still not really good. You know what? I was actually happy about it. The reason is that movie, this movie, was part of a deal. I would get to pick a movie for us to go see in exchange for my attendance of Almost Christmas. You'll find out what I picked in another post. Since it is Christmas time, let's talk about a Christmas movie.
This Christmas movie starts with Walter (Glover), the patriarch of a spread out family coming back together for the holidays. It's the first Christmas since his wife passed away. As a tribute to her, and a way to keep a family tradition alive, he is determined to recreate her legendary sweet potato pie. Unfortunately, the recipe is nowhere to be found. That might be the least of his problems, though. Once the family starts arriving, it becomes apparent there is lots of friction between certain members. Cheryl (Elise) is the eldest. She's financially secure and is married to Lonnie (Smoove), a former basketball player still trying to live off his days as a pro in Croatia. Christian (Malco), the eldest son, is in the middle of running for Congress. He brings his wife Jessie (Parker), their kids, and his campaign manager, Brooks (Higgins). Third child Rachel (Union) is a financial mess, This has her on the verge of dropping out of law school. She is also a single mom and has a rather obvious chip on her shoulder. Evan (Usher) is the youngest. He's a college football player who apparently has a legitimate shot at being in the NFL. However, he is coming off a shoulder injury. Finally, Walter's sister-in-law, Aunt May (Mo'Nique), comes around to help stir the pot.
When the pot is stirred is when the Almost Christmas is at its best. The situations that arise are mostly cliche, but the film manages to wring a solid number of laughs out of them. JB Smoove, giving us the JB Smoove persona, is most responsible. However, he's not alone. The rest of the cast also works in the film's favor. It's one of those movies where no one gives what would be called an Oscar-worthy performance, but each of the actors feels genuine. It's fairly easy to see they really have their hearts in their work. Mo'Nique has the most subtly wonderful moment, late in the film. Elise has the most bombastic, while everyone else gets to have their moment along the way. Together, they elevate the movie from what could truly have been a horrible experience, to be something that's at least watchable.
The Christmas setting, and dynamics of the family renders the movie wholly predictable. It borrows heavily from hundreds of films that came before it. The two most obvious influences are 1997's Soul Food and the entire canon of Tyler Perry's directorial career. In reality, that's one influence since Soul Food is a film Perry has been emulating throughout his career. This brings me to director David E. Talbert. Like King Madea, Talbert first gained popularity with plays he wrote and directed. I've seen a couple. They play like less religious, more sexual versions of Perry's work. On the big screen he previously helmed First Sunday (2008) and Baggage Claim (2013). Neither of them were any good. Almost Christmas is better than either of those by a great deal, but fails to differentiate itself from Perry's work other than in the ways Talbert always has. It's a bit less religious, and a bit more sexual. I say all this as a person who actually despises most of Perry's movies. That said, all of them are filled with his fingerprints. Almost Christmas feels the same, though he did not. I realize I sound like a Perry sycophant. This is a really strange position for me to be in as I generally despise his movies. I'm just trying to note how much Talbert reminds me of him, It's to the point where I can't think of anything about it that strikes me as being part of Talbert's own distinct style. As mentioned earlier, it's the humor and the earnestness of the performances that carry this movie. Unfortunately, these things are in service of a story that feels derivative and generic.