Director: David E. Talbert
Cast: Danny Glover, Gabrielle Union, Kimberly Elise, Omar Epps, Mo’Nique, JB Smoove, Jessie Usher, DC Young Fly, John Michael Higgins, Romany Malco, Nicole Ari Parker
Watch Almost Christmas online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Sky Store
We unwrap a different Christmas film from Netflix’s dubious seasonal selection every day. For 12 days. It’s the 12 Days of Netflix.
The home-for-the-holidays movie (usually Christmas or Thanksgiving) has become something of a staple over the last 20 years or so, with filmmakers clearly drawn to the obvious source of conflict and resolution that the dysfunctional family represents. Written and directed by David E. Talbert, Almost Christmas fits squarely into that genre, but it’s elevated into above-average status by virtue of its accomplished comic cast and a firm grasp of tone.
Set in present-day Birmingham, Alabama, the film stars Danny Glover as Walter, a retired father of four adult children (and yes, he does say he’s “too old for this shit”). As the extended family descend for the holiday period, there’s an underlying note of sadness, because this will be their first Christmas without Grace, Walter’s wife of 45 years. This being a dysfunctional family Christmas movie, it isn’t long before sibling rivalry rears its head between cash-strapped Rachel (Gabrielle Union) and over-achieving Cheryl (Kimberly Elise). When Rachel discovers that Cheryl’s smooth-talking husband, Lonnie (J.B. Smoove), has had a dalliance with supermarket checkout woman Jasmine (a scene-stealing Keri Hilson), she “generously” invites her to Christmas dinner, an action akin to lighting the fuse on a stick of comedy dynamite.
Needless to say, there are a number of other subplots floating about, namely: Rachel’s charming neighbour Malachi (Omar Epps) trying to make up for not taking her to prom when they were at high school; Walter’s youngest son Evan (Jessie T. Usher) hiding the fact that he’s become dependent on pain medication after a football injury; political candidate Christian (Romany Malco) being wooed by some shady business types; and Walter’s own secret, that he’s planning on selling the family home without telling anyone.
Crucially, Talbert nails the most important element of the dysfunctional family comedy, which is to assemble a talented and likeable comic cast. To that end, pretty much everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, but there are two clear stand-outs: J.B. Smoove, who sticks to his established comic persona with very funny results, and Mo’Nique (as Walter’s sassy sister-in-law), who’s clearly ad-libbing as if her life depended on it (at least if the out-takes at the end are anything to go by) and gets off some spit-out-your-tea one-liners, e.g. “I got vibrators older than that boy!” when she gets the eye from one of Evan’s friends.
Indeed, if there’s a problem with the film, it’s only that the language is perhaps a little too salty for Christmas family fare – there are a few more “hos” (and “bitches” and “ass”es) than you might reasonably be expecting, and you can mostly blame Mo’Nique for that.
On the plus side, Talbert is a dab hand with a comedy set piece, getting his biggest laughs from the aforementioned Christmas dinner scene (Smoove’s moves, as he tries to avoid being seen by Hilson’s Jasmine, are comedy gold) and a sequence where Lonnie tries to fix a malfunctioning electric Santa, with the kids down below, iPhones at the ready as they sense a viral video opportunity. Throughout, his strategy seems to be to just let the actors do their thing, and it’s an approach that largely pays off. That’s particularly evident in one of the film’s best scenes, where three generations of actors just dance around in the kitchen for a few minutes; their evident enjoyment is genuinely infectious and leaves you grinning for the rest of the movie.
The film’s focus on character rather than plot means that the various conflicts all get resolved relatively smoothly, with the refreshing result that the film never gets bogged down in the expected levels of sentimentality. That also means that the film never quite delivers an emotional knock-out blow, settling instead for a series of moments that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. In the end, it feels like a fair exchange.
Almost Christmas is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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