Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The first Christmas without my mother was a memorable one. Not because it was funny – quite the opposite. It involved lots of cleaning products, expired meats, top ramen and a forgetful father who couldn’t get his act together for the sake of his kids. It would be a dark independent picture compared to the warmhearted comedy of writer-director David E. Talbert’s ALMOST CHRISTMAS. While the family at the center of this movie isn’t exactly Sears portrait perfect, they are a loving one – and a family you want to spend time with.
The Meyers family seems to put the fun in dysfunctional. Recent widower George (Danny Glover) is having some trepidations about gathering his family at their Birmingham manse for Christmas as this is the first major holiday without the matriarch around to bring them all together. George’s sassy sis-in-law May (Mo’Nique) means well, but her cookin’ and consistent boozin’ habits are less than desirable. George’s kids are each going through their own tribulations in addition to Mom being gone; eldest daughter/ type-A personality Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) is participating in a charade with her louse of a husband (J.B. Smoove). Divorced-single mom Rachel (Gabrielle Union) is prideful, broke and constantly lobbing passive-aggressive swipes at older sister Cheryl. Christian (Romany Malco) is running for Congress, worrying about his appearance, getting caught up in all the politicking. And youngest sibling/ star college footballer Evan (Jessie T. Usher) is abusing pain pills. All George wants is a peaceful holiday full of yuletide cheer – but that’s not exactly what he gets.
Talbert’s script successfully balances the screen time of each character – a true feat given the extended ensemble. He also achieves a brilliant balance between heartfelt sentiments and humor even within the same scene. Tone plays a big part in a piece like this and it’s refreshing that it doesn’t vary too wildly on either side of the spectrum. Warmth permeates the screen. Talbert keeps it pretty consistent, and it feels like a pleasure to see the comedic shenanigans build. In terms of the hilarity, the climax at the Christmas dinner table is this film’s big set piece and it doesn’t disappoint. The cast, who is as adept at playing the highly comedic notes as the dramatic ones, really knocks it out the park, playing it to the hilt in their trademarked ways. As Mo’Nique further enraptures the audience with her ability to combine PG-13 swear-words in a don’t-give-a-damn fashion, Glover gets to say his trademarked zinger because of course he does – it’s that kind of movie. Even Elise gets time shine as she effortlessly seduces the funny out of this sequence. Plus, it’s a true pleasure that no one tries to steal the spotlight with any showboating or peacocking.
But perhaps the best parts of the film are the ones where Talbert trusts his talented cast to deliver the subtle nuances of the silences, blessedly valuing showing not telling. Those moments only serve to highlight their skills as performers and the writer-director as a filmmaker. It all works to stoke the warmth from the audience’s hearts: From the opening scene where Glover lays his heavy heart at the feet of the audience, to when Mom’s recipe box is inevitably found (something that hit home with me as my family still can’t find my deceased mom’s recipes), to the very last scene with Glover and Mo’Nique at the dining room table.
Despite my personal desire to see the pre-holiday comedic shenanigans dialed up just a smidge more, what’s there is a well-crafted holiday picture, universal in appeal and scope that lights up laughter and maybe earns a few tears.
ALMOST CHRISTMAS opens on November 11.