Movie Review: Almost Christmas

(l to r) Kimberly Elise, Mo'Nique, Gabrielle Union, Nicole Ari Parker Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert - © Universal Pictures

(l to r) Kimberly Elise, Mo’Nique, Gabrielle Union, Nicole Ari Parker
Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert – © Universal Pictures

Does the title word of “Almost” merely point out that the holiday isn’t here as yet? Or is it a hint that the movie doesn’t quite live up to expectations?

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Perhaps it was the December 25th dysfunctional family get-together that created the term “War on Christmas.” What with too many personalities, too much history and too many unrealistic expectations — Yule-fueled to a fare-thee-well with hefty doses of alcohol and sugar – it’s no wonder that the seasonal reunion is a misshapen re-gift that keeps on giving.

Like those drippy Christmas carols that start assaulting our eardrums right around the untimely, unseemly last gasp of Halloween, Almost Christmas is the first holiday-themed movie to throw its Santa hat into the ring. Maybe the filmmakers thought that by opting for an early release on Veteran’s Day, two weeks before Thanksgiving, the film would get a decided jump on the competition. But will moviegoers truly want to connect with their inner George Baileys (It’s a Wonderful Life) prior to communing with their Del Griffiths (Planes, Trains & Automobiles)? Probably not. Next, we’ll be donning our repellent red-and-green reindeer sweaters … in July.

Putting aside the chronological scramble, Almost Christmas focuses on family patriarch and widower Walter Meyers (Danny Glover), who’s intent on bringing his contentious family together for Christmas. Given that the family had lost their beloved mother earlier that year, Walter feels that it’s his duty to take on the role of the family’s nurturing, peacekeeping force.

Writer/director David E. Talbert (Baggage Claim, First Sunday) opens his film with nostalgic shots of the life of the blossoming Meyers’ clan from 1971 to the present. After the credits, each adult child is introduced, framed by his/her current roles and circumstances. First daughter Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) is a successful dentist, unhappily married to onetime professional basketball star Lonnie (JB Smoove), who’s chasing after his glorious yesterday. Older politician son Christian (Romany Marco) is running for congress, and younger daughter Rachel (Gabrielle Union), divorced and a single mom, is struggling to pay her law school tuition. The late-in-life child Evan (Jessie T. Usher) is a burgeoning young athlete who, due to a sports injury, has become addicted to pain pills. And representing a blast of comic spark, we’re treated to the oversized persona of Aunt May (Mo’Nique), a bewigged and bedazzled back-up singer of worldwide repute.

(l to r) Romany Malco, Alkoya Brunson, Nicole Ari Parker, Marley Taylor, JB Smoove, Kimberly Elise, Nadej Bailey, Gabrielle Union, Danny Glover, Mo'Nique Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert - © Universal Pictures

(l to r) Romany Malco, Alkoya Brunson, Nicole Ari Parker, Marley Taylor, JB Smoove, Kimberly Elise, Nadej Bailey, Gabrielle Union, Danny Glover, Mo’Nique. Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert – © Universal Pictures

Ensemble films present a particular challenge: Is there enough time to delve into each main character? Do these characters all require distinct subplots? And if so, how will all the individual conflicts resolve?

Hence the wrinkle with Almost Christmas. While filmmaker Talbert ably juggles the multiple story lines, there simply isn’t enough time to credibly resolve the conflicts. Such as when politician son Christian realizes that he’s about to slide down an ethically slippery slope … he refuses. End of story. And when young Evan confronts his dad about his secret decision to sell the house, that again wraps up in a few words.

The ugliest conflict comes via the ongoing verbal clashes between the sisters, who display a vitriol that doesn’t fit the tone of the movie. (In an unrelated scene, Aunt May reacts to some family incident, saying “This gonna blow my buzz.”) Which is a perfect description of what happens every time the sisters collide … they literally blow this movie’s buzz. Yet in the third act, when their animosity is finally examined, the reason is trivial and the resolution is immediate. It’s as if the filmmakers realized that since the story needed some weight, they created an ugly mountain out of a fairly insubstantial molehill.

Speaking of ugly, the few instances of slapstick go to extremes that prove difficult to watch. When Lonnie tries to fix an electric Santa display, he flies off the roof of the two-story house and lands flat on his back on the hard pavement. No one’s alarmed. Later, when Rachel tries to climb through a window, a heavy glass pane crashes down on her lower back, pinning her body to the frame. It’s not painfully funny; rather, it’s just painful.

Glover provides a gentle, strong sense of the loving father/mourning widower who finds himself suddenly unmoored from his life. His dramatic moments work; however, when he’s pressed to enact silly scenes in the kitchen that illustrate his failings in culinary art, the actor appears ill-at-ease.

As for the Meyers family, the ensemble conveys a charming camaraderie. Yet given the considerable talent of the cast, it’s surprising that the scenes of upbeat humor appear forced. (Compare the movie’s comedic moments to the actors’ genuinely gleeful reactions captured on the outtake reel that runs at the film’s end … the difference is notable.)

Mo'Nique in "Almost Christmas"

Mo’Nique in “Almost Christmas” Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert – © Universal Pictures

While Mo’Nique’s Aunt May benefits from some priceless lines, and is the obvious darling of the wardrobe/make-up department, the character cries out for even more time in the limelight. Aunt May delivers on the promise of pizzazz; naturally the audience leans in on her every word, hoping for bigger, better laughs. (A puzzled side note: as an internationally famous back-up singer, when she’s sitting at the piano, why doesn’t she sing? Just asking …)

It appears that filmmaker Talbert wasn’t sure whether he wanted to lean toward comedy or drama. And that uncertain juggle results in a muddled middle ground that is neither the stuff of wild family fun nor hard-hitting drama. A shame. Almost Christmas could have been far better than “almost.”

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Rating on a scale of 5 Holiday Inns and Outs: 2.5

Release date: November 11, 2016
Written and Directed by: David E. Talbert
Cast: Kimberly Elise, Omar Epps, Danny Glover, John Michael Higgins, Romany Malco, Mo’Nique, Nicole Ari Parker, JB Smoove, Gabrielle Union, Jessie T. Usher, Keri Hilson, DC Young Fly
Running Time: 112 minutes
Rating: PG-13

Here’s the trailer for Almost Christmas:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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