It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but unfortunately, that seldom follows for new movies. Amid cruder comedy releases like Bad Santa 2 and Office Christmas Party, this year’s annual movie about a festive family gathering is Almost Christmas, directed by David E Talbert and starring an ensemble cast led by Danny Glover, Gabrielle Union and Mo’Nique.
The film begins with a montage set to the Four Tops, covering the Meyers family’s Christmases from the 1970s up to 2015. But entirely in keeping with 2016 so far, matriarch Grace (Rachel Kylian) has passed away and Christmas will be the first time that Walter has got his four grown-up children under one roof since they lost her.
Unfortunately for him, the five days leading up to Christmas are a nightmare as the siblings and their families are distracted by other concerns. Law student Rachel (Union) and dental surgeon Cheryl (Kimberley Elise) can’t talk to each other without bickering, Congressional candidate Christian (Romany Malco) brings his campaign manager (John Michael Higgins) to stay with the family, and young football star Evan (Jesse T. Usher) has been hit hardest by his mother’s passing.
For this type of Christmas movie, an excess of characters usually leads to the story feeling episodic and tenuous, but at least when they’re all under one roof, as in last year’s Christmas With The Coopers, there’s some semblance of focus. In fact, Almost Christmas is accommodating to a fault, when it comes to making sure that all of the characters’ arcs have time to unfold, no matter how predictable they may be.
Will Walter ever perfectly recreate his late wife’s sweet potato pie? Will Christian discover his conscience when his donors ask him to re-zone a district and close a homeless shelter that his mum ran? Will Rachel overcome her low self-esteem and social awkwardness to get together with her high school sweetheart, Malachi (Omar Epps), who still lives next door? You probably know the answers to all of these questions sight unseen, but to give credit where it’s due, some of those answers are more entertaining that others.
For one thing, this is one of those films that makes cooking look great, and even as Glover gets more and more frustrated with his lumpy or runny attempts at pie, it’s a basic but potent emotional anchor for his character and there are certainly more cloying, less delicious-looking cinematic metaphors for working through grief.
Walter’s main ally against the dysfunctional family that have invaded his house is his sister in law Aunt May (Mo’Nique), and she’s by far the most consistently entertaining character. She cuts through even the soapiest subplots to find the laugh in any scene she’s in, which can’t be said for anyone else in the ensemble.
In fact, this is the kind of comedy drama where it frequently falls back on the pathos because the comedic stuff just isn’t that funny. Cheryl’s husband Lonnie (J.B. Smoove) shoulders a lot of what is supposed to be comic relief, but he rarely provokes more than a smirk and then becomes a gross, reprehensible character in the grand scheme of things. The conflict and drama doesn’t pay off either, because it’s mostly smoothed over or orphaned in the interest of a happy ending.
Almost Christmas is another once-and-done Christmas movie, with bickering adults and precocious kids racing around an all too still emotional centre. Despite the inspirational festive cooking and a strong effort from Mo’Nique, you know you’ve not had a good time when the outtakes raise more laughs than the film. Most of the cast raise more laughs in these bloopers before the end credits than they did throughout the baggy advent saga that precedes it. By the time Danny Glover says the one line that Danny Glover often says in films, you’ll already have forgotten it.
Almost Christmas is in UK cinemas now.