In the movies, Christmas is a time of reunion, reconciliation, and reparation, the season for broken families to convene and work through their problems and bridge their divides—to, in essence, become a family again. This template has served as the basis for any number of holiday comedies and Hallmark Channel movies, and writer-director David E. Talbert has pulled it off the shelf once again for Almost Christmas, a fitfully funny but doggedly conventional comedy about a dysfunctional Alabama family gathering together for their first Christmas since the sudden passing of their beloved matriarch.
As a result of the Talbert family having lost their center, long-simmering tensions are allowed to come to a boil. Walter (Danny Glover), the clan’s patriarch, can do little but look on helplessly as his adult children (Gabrielle Union, Romany Malco, Kimberly Elise, and Jessie T. Usher) squabble while wrestling with their own private and professional issues, including low self-esteem, a political campaign, and a philandering husband. This is the kind of film where every character is struggling with a secret personal dilemma, all of which are aired and worked through by the time the credits roll.
Talbert mostly plays the Meyers’ dysfunctions as Southern-fried farce, achieving a pleasantly manic pulse from the push and pull of its performers. J.B. Smoove, playing Walter’s doggish son-in-law, contributes some Christmas Vacation-style slapstick, and Mo’Nique, as the brassy Aunt May, provides the requisite outrageous one-liners (“I have vibrators older than that child!”). If the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it at least avoids the kind of strained excessiveness of so many family comedies.
It helps that Almost Christmas’s atmosphere is warm and cozy—all knit sweaters and comfort food—and that Talbert allows a credible familiality to develop among his actors, who bounce off each other with a mix of comfort and agitation that captures the ambient hum of annoyance so often generated by relatives in close proximity. Union and Elise, in particular, bring a palpable sense of mutual disdain to their characters’ bitter sororal rivalry.
The film’s homely vibe, thoguh, is undercut by the emotional manipulations and simplistic moral dilemmas of Talbert’s writing. The filmmaker piles on the subplots (a character struggling with an addiction to painkillers, a homeless shelter threatened by real estate developers), attempting to wring as much melodrama out of his characters as he can while covering the film in the thinnest patina of social conscience. He shows no investment in these issues, instead simply exploiting them for their inherent sentimental appeal.
Almost Christmas is much more affecting in its simpler moments, particularly those revolving around food. Throughout, Walter tries and fails to replicate his wife’s famous sweet potato pie recipe, a centerpiece of the family’s Christmas celebrations. His first attempt is a disaster, and his subsequent tries still fail to get the dish quite right. Only at the film’s end, when Walter relaxes and channels his wife’s memory, is he able to make the pie just as she did. The symbolism here isn’t subtle, but it’s poignant in its way, suggesting the rememorative power of cooking and food’s link to the past.
Maybe Talbert should have paid closer attention to this symbol: a simple dish that excels when quality ingredients are combined in the perfect proportion. Almost Christmas assembles many of the right elements and combines them with care, but then fits them into an overly familiar narrative structure.