Almost Christmas strenuously, but genially and often amusingly toes the line set out by a litany of holiday comedies made about dysfunctional families trying to keep it together and get through “the most wonderful time of the year.” Walter Meyers (Danny Glover) is doing his best to get his large brood of kids and grandkids together for the first Christmas following the death of his beloved wife and the last before he intends to sell their childhood home in a Montgomery, Alabama suburb. Daughter Rachel (Gabrielle Union) is a strong willed, independent, single mother still reeling from a divorce and struggling in her attempts to pay her way through law school. Rachel has beef with her older, belittling, successful sister Cheryl (Kimberly Elise), who’s married to an obnoxious loser (J.B. Smoove) who thinks he’s a big deal since he played a single basketball season in Seattle before burning out and winning a championship in Croatia. Oldest brother Christian (Romany Malco) is running for Congress, but he’s having a crisis of conscience when it comes to raising money for his campaign. Younger brother Evan (Jessie T. Usher) is a blue chip college football prospect trying to prepare for a big bowl game following an injury that has quietly left him with a painkiller addiction. Walter’s well intentioned, but scatterbrained backup singer sister-in-law (Mo’Nique) tries to keep things in order, but the family seems as determined to pull each other apart as much as they come together.
Almost Christmas writer and director David E. Talbert (Baggage Claim, First Sunday) and producer William Packer (Ride Along, Think Like a Man) aren’t working with any new material here, but films pitched squarely at the yuletide crowd have a low bar of difficulty. As long as the film spreads a considerable amount of holiday cheer, warm, fuzzy feelings, and some life lessons, the audience will probably like it. There are very few moments of ingenuity in Almost Christmas, but there’s also nothing particularly wrong with it, either.
There are some scenes that emphatically don’t work because they’re trying far too hard to rip and render the heartstrings, especially a horridly unsubtle late film epiphany that Christian has about his campaign. Every time someone remembers the memory of their wife/mother/sister, Talbert makes sure the score swells for maximum wistfulness. The characters are well fleshed out and fun to follow around (except for the usually reliable Smoove, whose boorish lout is a bit much here), but there’s never any doubt where their storylines and subplots are headed. Talbert doesn’t ask much of the audience, content to give them more of the same for 112 minutes. There’s a football game designed to show the competitive nature of the siblings, several scenes of cooking mishaps, the requisite trip to church, repairing faulty Christmas decorations. Any beat that could be pulled out of the Christmas movie bargain bin gets trotted out here, and usually to decent effect.
Films trafficking in holiday cheer don’t always have to be original to work. Almost every Christmas movie gets by on nostalgia and warm feelings. As long as at least one character in a holiday comedy learns something about the spirit of the season, viewers are likely to forgive any number of clichés and sappy story beats. If one thinks not too long and not too hard about it, Christmas might be the most clichéd holiday in existence, but what sets the charming Almost Christmas apart from painfully unfunny and downright unwatchable trainwrecks like Love the Coopers or Christmas with the Kranks is that Talbert never plays things wackier than they need to be, therefore never fully underlining how contrived everything appears on the surface. I think Talbert knows that audiences have seen this kind of film before, and to the credit of the cast and filmmakers, they never pretend that Almost Christmas is something it isn’t. It isn’t a technically challenging film that needs a lot of style to succeed in its goals. It just needs to be competent and never awful. It sounds like faint praise (and it might be), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
The cast has more than a few standout performances that make the sugary sweetness go down like a cup of hot cocoa. Union further proves her constantly underrated comedic and dramatic talents, often doing more with facial expressions and body language to convey confusion, disgust, or awkward tension than any line of dialogue could. Glover, who hasn’t been getting the best roles as of late, grounds the film with his loving patriarch, constantly reminding the viewer that the family isn’t merely dysfunctional, but also wounded and grieving. Mo’Nique takes what could have been an annoying caricature and turns her into one of the most likeable and relatable members of the family. And with the exception of not exactly nailing an emotional moment during the film’s climax, Usher steals every scene by being the perfect mix of likeable, sympathetic, flawed, and goofy.
On paper Almost Christmas is undistinguished, but in practice that doesn’t hurt the film much. I didn’t have too many big laughs, but I was smiling throughout. While watching the film, it felt like Christmas. Sometimes that’s all a film like this needs to succeed. I wasn’t beaten over the head with cheer and left in an alley to rot amid tossed out trees and half eaten candy canes. I felt like I watched a crowd pleasing Christmas film that I didn’t regret sitting through, and in this day and age, I mean that as high praise. Maybe I liked this because the bar for this sort of thing has been set so low in recent years, and memories of it will probably be fleeting, but in the moment I had a fine time. If you find yourself similarly looking for something to ease you into the holiday season, Almost Christmas should fit the bill just fine.