If there is any reason, besides an annual craving for cinematic Christmas cheer, to see “Almost Christmas,” that reason is Mo’Nique. Heck, the Mo’Nique bloopers at the end of the film are worth the price of admission. So thank you, writer-director David E. Talbert for finally giving Mo’Nique a decent role after her Oscar-winning turn in 2009’s “Precious” — we needed her back on the big screen.
Talbert does right by essentially turning the cameras on and letting Mo’Nique do her thing as the eccentric, motormouth Aunt May of the Meyers clan, swathed in caftans, sporting numerous wigs and spouting stories about her glamorous life as a backup singer for global superstars. You’ll wish for more of her, and, if “Almost Christmas” has any sort of sequel or spin off, it’d be criminal if it wasn’t a prequel focused on Aunt May’s backstory. Mo’Nique is a treasure, and “Almost Christmas” is a fine reminder of that.
That being said, in a film that sports 14 stars on its poster, there’s only one other person in “Almost Christmas” who can go toe to toe with Aunt May, and that’s J.B. Smoove as Lonny, an arrogant, philandering former basketball player married to the uptight Cheryl (Kimberly Elise). She’s the doctor daughter of Walter (Danny Glover), who has gathered his four children and their families back at home for Christmas just 10 months after the death of his wife, Grace, and no one seems to have found their footing yet.
Just like every family, there are sibling rivalries and longstanding feuds and traditions and rituals. Cheryl fights with sister Rachel (Gabrielle Union) over everything and anything, while Christian (Romany Malco), who’s running for Congress, is urged to spend more time with his family by his wife, Sonja (Nicole Ari Parker). Little brother Evan (Jessie Usher) is a college football star with a painkiller problem. And Walter just wants to figure out how to make the perfect sweet potato pie.
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The film is a bit scattered, jumping from comic set piece to comic set piece that seem to come standard issue in the holiday movie genre. Someone falls off the roof fixing decorations? Check. Church spectacle? Check. Christmas dinner debacle? Check. Throw in some cute kids, a family touch football game and burned stuffing and you’ve yourself got a holiday movie. Interwoven with the pratfalls and mayhem is a thread of distinct sadness and pathos, expressed by the quietly overwhelmed Walter, who says he’s “learning how to walk again” in the wake of his wife’s passing.
While Glover is delicately charming as Walter, it’s truly only Mo’Nique who owns the biggest laughs and the truly heartfelt moments in the film. The rest of the gang is a bit too zany or too soapy melodramatic to buy into, especially with the wild tonal shifts.
But for all the over-the-top operatic moments — car wrecks and prom throwbacks and rifles at the dinner table — there’s something about the chaos of “Almost Christmas” that rings true about the holiday season. It is possible to go from hating to loving your sister, to go from fighting to dancing together in the kitchen. “Almost Christmas” encompasses every high, low, in-between, culinary mishap and electric slide that makes the holidays what they are.
☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Danny Glover, Mo’Nique, Gabrielle Union, Romany Malco, Kimberly Elise, J.B. Smoove
Director: David E. Talbert
Running time: 1:52.
Rated: PG-13, for suggestive material, drug content and language.