These days, Christmas starts in November. Starbucks, Walmart and all your other favorite box stores have already put up the decorations and their employees are already sick of the carols. It only makes sense that this week at the movies we’re reminded that Christmas is almost here, even though it’s still over a month away. It’s time for the year’s first disposable X-mas family comedy. This one’s called, appropriately enough, ‘Almost Christmas’.
Thankfully, that the cast is strong enough to actually earn some laughs. Unfortunately, writer/director David E. Talbert is so indebted to feel-good formula that the back half of the movie stifles almost all the talent he assembled under an avalanche of schmaltz. That said, it’s true that nauseating sentiment is practically a genre requirement in these things.
Danny Glover stars as Walter, the head of a huge dysfunctional family, all of whom always return home for the holidays. This year, things will be different. Walter’s wife, who held the clan together, passed on and now they need to march on without her. That means Walter will host all sorts of folks with various eccentricities destined to comedically clash. Mo’nique plays his sister-in-law and professional backup singer with too much ego and too few cooking skills. Kimberly Elise plays his uptight first-born. She’s trapped in a marriage with J.B. Smoove’s smooth-talking, J.B. Smoove type with a wandering eye. Gabrielle Union is his youngest daughter struggling through financial problems. Romany Malco is his eldest son with a political career that clashes with his personal ideals. Jessie T. Usher is the youngest son, who’s hooked on pain pills after a college football injury. All these stories are wired to pop and get smoothed over just in time for some sappy holiday sentiment and a cathartic slice of pie.
The good news is that director Talbert assembled one hell of a cast and gave them all just enough to do to shine… for a while. Mo’nique is absolutely hysterical as a bouncing ball of attitude with an endless series of ridiculous wigs. J.B. Smoove is one of those people who just can’t not be hilarious in any scenario and he gets some big laughs here. Glover grounds everything with the quiet authority that he too rarely gets to bring to film these days. Gabrielle Union and Romany Malco both bring a certain humanity to their one-note roles. Even folks like Omar Epps and John Michael Higgins charm up the screen in minimal screen time. For a while, the movie plays like a thoroughly amusingly holiday family confection drifting from one story to the next with just enough successful broad comedy to balance out the melodrama and excessive sentimentality.
Sadly, it’s not all good news. While Talbert goes after laughs and gets them, his main goal is to pull on heartstrings. Nothing wrong with that. Good heartstring pulling defines most Christmas classics. The problem is that he does too much. The movie has so many plotlines competing for attention that when they all go syrupy it just gets overwhelming. The heartfelt climax of ‘Almost Christmas’ accounts for essentially half the movie because there are so many threads to wrap up with tears. It gets exhausting, then irritating, then back to exhausting again, and then you’ll start checking your watch and wondering when you can finally go home. There’s a chance some folks will like that, but most people will have their feels so burned-out that they’ll never want to feel again.
It’s a shame that Talbert couldn’t balance the comedy and drama a little more. If even a few of the storylines had stayed silly to compensate for the rest, this could have been a nice little holiday comedy surprise. Instead, it’s that for about an hour and then an endurance test of Hallmark movie weepies that pushes the gag reflex instead of massaging the heart.
I suppose there had to be one overly sentimental Christmas movie to hit screens this year and then gobble up deep cable time slots for the rest of eternity. That’s just how this genre works. At least this year’s entry in that unfortunate canon is more watchable than last year’s ‘Love the Coopers‘, a movie that you already forgot about, for damn good reason.