Friday, November 11, 2016

If Not Great Cinema, Upbeat 'Almost Christmas' Can Offer a Great Escape for Those Down in the Doldrums

Cheryl (Kimberly Elise), Aunt May (Mo'Nique), Rachel (Gabrielle Union) and Sonya (Nicole Ari Parker) get down on it in a scene from "Almost Christmas." Quantrell D. Colbert photos for Universal Studios.


Meyers (Danny Glover) will be celebrating his first Christmas  without his beloved late wife, by all accounts, a paragon of all things.

His children and their families, as well as his sister in-law, May (Mo'Nique), descend on the Alabama homestead during the five days leading up to the holiday. Walter's most fervent wish is that they all get along during this brief period.

This is the premise of "Almost Christmas." Directed by David E. Talbert from his script and produced by white-hot Will Packer, the film opens in U. S. theaters today.

Of course, family members bring with them all the hurts and slights - real and imagined - dating to their first memories particularly the two sisters, dentist Cheryl and law student Rachel (Kimberly Elise and executive producer Gabrielle Union, respectively.)

Walter (Danny Glover) is working on a masterpiece.

It's a familiar story. To that end, empathy will abound. A notable difference is that the mainly winning "Almost Christmas" cast is not virtually all-white, rather all-black. There is a token nonblack (white) character in the form of Brooks (John Michael Higgins) as the smarmy campaign manager of fledgling politician and oldest son, Christian (Romany Malco).

Like so many films of its ilk, "Almost Christmas" is lighthearted with hardly a serious bone in its body. As expected, too, all's well that ends well.

There are a few funny and tender moments, namely the scenes between Rachel and next-door neighbor, Malachi (Omar Epps). They have unfinished high-school prom business marked by misunderstandings. Laugh-worthy, too, are the lightning-fast text exchanges between the two older grandchildren, Niya (Nadej Bailey) and Cameron (Alkoya Brunson), during contretemps at Christmas dinner.

Aunt May (Mo’Nique, right) takes the family on a world tour of her cuisine.

Tender and funny are Walter’s attempts to replicate his late wife’s sweet potato pie recipe. Also toggling between these poles is the tag football scene, one of the few that is unself-conscious in a film that is too aware of its consequence.

In the main, though, DET’s script is forced, contrived and hackneyed (prescription drug-addicted football star son, Evan [Jessie Usher]; Christian’s ethical dilemma; the enmity between Cheryl and Rachel).

Malachi (Omar Epps) and Rachel (Gabrielle Union) have been laboring under a misapprehension for years.

Meanwhile, kids in films can be too cute for their own good. It is the case with Dee (Marley Taylor),) the youngest of the grandchildren. On occasion, incidentally, her upper middle class accent deserts her. Speaking of accents, the Southern variety is absent in this Alabama family, though DG retains one that can be applied to the black, blue-collar everyman done good.

In “Almost Christmas,” some scenes are embarrassingly uncomfortable and simply not funny, though the latter is clearly the intent. All with J.B. Smoove as Lonnie, Cheryl’s journeyman pro basketball player husband, fit into this category. Silly is an apt characterization.

Dee (Marley Taylor), Niya (Nadej Bailey) and Cameron (Alkoya Brunson) are excited about a big fall.

Ditto for those with Mo’Nique’s Mary, who has sung backup for everybody from Chaka Khan to Stevie Wonder. She gets to play the stereotypical coarse, vulgar, large, loud black woman role. In her best scene, she recounts the backstory for each dish she has prepared on the first night that the family gathers. It is almost uproarious.

But would it not have been far more interesting for KE or Nicole Ari Parker (Sonya) to play this role and for Mo’Nique to portray the successful dentist or perfect housewife/loving mother? Here is a place an actor can show off her chops, no? Clearly, JBS and Mo’Nique are the comic relief. Alas, their efforts are manifested as so much buffoonery.

Evan (Jessie Usher) confronts Walter (Danny Glover) about something that has been bothering him.

If these significant shortcomings can be overlooked, "Almost Christmas" will be rather enjoyable. Because it is a bit of nonsense with sufficient laughs to chase away the blue devils, it can be an antidote for holiday blues.

On this score alone, it is balm, for sometimes silliness is just the thing.

"Almost Christmas" is rated PG-13 for suggestive material, drug content and language; visit to learn more about the film.

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