Almost Christmas begins in the ’70s, but it doesn’t stay there for long. During a well-choreographed opening credits sequence that favors time-hopping pans over quick cuts, writer-director David E. Talbert follows a young couple through the holiday seasons as they add four children to their family and, at some unspecified time in the ’90s, the patriarch turns into Danny Glover. There are worse fates for a handsome young man. The transition may be abrupt, but he emerges uniquely qualified to describe whether he is the correct age for this shit, information that Walter (Glover) dutifully provides later in the film.
It’s a wonder he doesn’t say it earlier. Walter wants desperately for his family to come together and celebrate Christmas at his home for the first time since his wife died, and while all of the grown-up kids show up, they’re not especially celebratory. Controlling Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) and cash-poor Rachel (Gabrielle Union) frequently revert to their ongoing feud over each other’s life choices; Christian (Romany Malco) is occupied with his congressional run, which inexplicably seems to be ramping up in late December; and Evan (Jessie Usher), the surprise baby of the family, is attempting to conquer a college football injury. Aunt May (Mo’Nique) has fewer problems and a still-functioning career as a backup singer, but seems to be as aggrieved as anyone.
Yes, Almost Christmas is a fighting-family-comes-home-for-the-holidays movie, and there are limits to what it can offer when it clearly finds the contours of this subgenre as comfy as a well-worn family couch. But at least it’s free of eye-rolling quasi-cynicism about holiday get-togethers; none of this brood makes lame wisecracks about wishing they were elsewhere. In the film’s early moments, Talbert does a nice job capturing the awkward hesitations that often come when a family reunites, especially after a death has changed their status quo. He overplays his hand, though, with the sheer number of times the characters look wistfully at photographs of the family’s departed matriarch, whose posthumous characterization lands somewhere between beautiful angel and darling saint. It’s probably asking too much for a big-hearted mainstream comedy-drama to engage with the complexities of a dead person’s legacy beyond her not being around to make mouthwatering sweet-potato pie. But it would be nice if the movie didn’t outright ignore other dimensions of loss.
Almost Christmas has little time for that kind of quiet reflection, though, as it busies itself assembling the kind and number of subplots that create mounting dread about the marathon of resolution they will require in the final half hour. The tendency to overreach is encapsulated by a raspy, bewigged Mo’Nique performance that showboats both her bawdy laugh lines and her straight-faced, borderline religious reverence for the departed. Mo’Nique proved in Precious (and, for that matter, Domino) that she can be a strong dramatic actor, but it’s a little strange that Aunt May is the one who gets a crucial emotional scene opposite Glover’s Walter, rather than any of the four children going through actual character arcs.
The movie’s instincts for going big are better served when it chases farce, rather than melodrama—or when it turns the latter into the former. A dinner scene that involves a mistake coming back to haunt Cheryl’s dopey husband (J.B. Smoove) escalates nicely, and Union proves herself game for (if not always especially adept at) zany physical comedy as she bumbles through a romantic subplot with an old hometown friend (Omar Epps). Talbert has a surfeit of charming actors at his disposal, and when he jumbles them together, like for a kitchen dance party where the music keeps jumping back decades at a time, the movie relaxes into its warmth, rendering even the canned cute-kid reactions forgivable. Whatever its faults, this is a nice movie, a crowdpleaser best experienced with an appreciative audience—or, barring those conditions, on a long plane ride, or on Sunday afternoon cable, or other places people watch undemanding movies when they’re starting to get too old for this shit.