Director: David E. Talbert
Stars: Danny Glover, Gabrielle Union
3 (out of 5) Globes
It’s come to this: One solid way of detoxing after a legendarily pugilistic election season — while preparing for the gruesome aftermath to come — is to watch a movie about a family bickering. “Almost Christmas” is by no means a great movie, and it sticks right to the Christmas movie formula, mixing the sour and the sweet, the madcap and the sentimental. On the other hand, it has lots of very funny people in it, all bouncing off each other, inspiring each other to go bigger and sometimes weirder. It’s lazy to fall back on actors ad-libbing, but it’s only a crime when they don’t bring it.
Entirely chill with being no more than holiday comfort food, “Almost Christmas” crams a large family into an Atlanta suburb house, sadistic forcing them to spend four days under the same creaky roof. The plot details don’t sound fun. The dad (Danny Glover) is a recent widow also recently laid off from a job. His two daughters (Kimberly Elise and Gabrielle Union) quickly get back to nursing a lifetime mutual grudge. His older son (Romany Malco) is a workaholic who needs to learn about the important (read: unimportant) things in life. His youngest son (Kevin Usher) is a high school footballer nursing a growing addiction to painkillers.
It sounds drippy, too heavy for a movie that includes a scene where one husband (JB Smoove) dry-humps a robotic Santa then falls off a roof. The drama and even the comedic set pieces tend to be stock or lame, respectively. But good actors can make any swill go down well, and the players are so numerous and so game that they can sell anything, even a dodgy extended bit where the aunt (Mo’Nique) displays a lavish spread of dishes from other countries, the joke being that food from Korea is, you know, weird, right? Speaking of Mo’Nique, in her first big film since “Precious” (seriously) she absolutely kills, riffing insults and strapping on a Chaka Khan wig and leading an epic mid-film song-and-dance-off that should be uninspiring but is near-transcendent. It’s a thrill to have her back.
Contrary to the dysfunction onscreen, everyone seems to be having the time of their lives, engaged in friendly competition of who can improv the best line before someone comes up with something even better. They’re as inspired as the screenplay isn’t, and director David E. Talbert — of mainstream evangelical-ish titles like “First Sunday” and the wan “Baggage Claim” — just lets them loose and knows how to pace things at their breakneck speed. A dicey adultery subplot that leads to a farcical Christmas dinner climax works not because of the setup but because of the actors, particularly predictably manic work from Smoove. By the time it’s gotten to a bittersweet bit where Glover messily improvises his late wife’s famous recipe for sweet potato pie while “talking” to her, it's done more than give us respite from the hell outside the mulitplex.