I hate that it has taken me so long to get around to writing about this movie. In fact, when I re-watched it about a week ago, I was full of ideas about just what I wanted to say, and how I wanted to say it. But as I was with my girlfriend and unable to write at the time, I found my brain beginning to empty out rapidly over the next 24 hours. It’s the curse of my poor, broken brain.
But the show must go on, and so must I say something good about this movie, because I really love it more and more every time I watch it.
David E. Talbert’s Almost Christmas was out in 2016, and I recall picking it up completely on impulse as I walked past a rack of holiday movies at one of our local second-hand media stores, so I must have gotten to it in 2017. That may have been the same year I picked up Elf-Man. I can hardly believe it was only as recent as that–that I’ve spent four years with this film (and watched it almost each one of those years).
I believed I was shopping for garbage (Elf-Man, too, turned out to be very pleasant, but that’s a horse of a different color). There’s just a look that some Christmas movies have that sets off warning bells in my head: “You’ve seen this kind of thing before, and it’s going to be bad,” I hear in my head. “It will have no personality, and it will simply go through the motions. It will not move you, or entertain you, and it won’t even be bad in a funny way–this is going to be bad bad.”
You know the look.
I assumed this was going to be one of those. But it isn’t. This movie has just about everything I want in a Christmas film. It is warm, funny, moving, and well-acted by an outstanding and talented cast.
The movie focuses on the family surrounding patriarch Walter, played by Danny Glover. Walter’s wife, we see in an Up-like montage, has passed away. This will be his first Christmas without her, and as he wrestles with the decision to sell his house to get away from his grief, he also wrestles with her legendary sweet potato pie recipe, which might make it feel as if, just for a moment, she is still here with him.
But Walter is no cook, and his failed attempts at making the pie provide a good metaphor for the state of his family as they arrive in his home carrying their own baggage.
His daughter Rachel, played by Gabrielle Union, is a single mother doing whatever she can to make it without the need of a man (and Omar Epps provides the perfect, dreamy pushback to that goal, as Malachi, the prom date who got away so many years ago).
Rachel is in a vicious competition to be the best daughter with her sister Cheryl, played by the wonderfully prickly Kimberly Elise. Cheryl has her own problems, as her has-been, bottom-dwelling husband Lonnie (the hilarious J.B. Smoove), is proving unable to keep his sleaziness to himself even around her family, and at Christmas.
Romany Malco’s patented form of high-alert tension is perfect for his character Christian’s role as a politician, struggling with appearances, election prospects, networking and big decisions which challenge his ethics. This is all helped along by the always-delightful John Michael Higgins, who is so good at being that bland, tepid kind of evil that makes his political advisor character impossible to hate, even though he is the closest thing to a villain in this movie.
The final sibling character, Jessie Usher’s Evan, is Walter’s youngest (and least expected, at the time of his conception). He has a promising sport career, but it was put at risk by an injury for which he has been prescribed painkillers which he is coming to have an unhealthy dependence on.
Evan has been, in my previous viewings, the least interesting character to me, but especially as Americans of every walk of life struggle with a collective addiction to the opioid poison proliferated by profit-hungry pharmaceutical corporations, and as I’ve seen a few people in my own life disappear down that drain, I have stopped considering Evan an archetype, and begun to accept him as a real character. I think it is all the more meaningful that, the baby of the family, and the one I had considered most overlooked by the script, it is appropriate that his addiction is not well noticed in his family. It is therefore rewarding to see him take the lead near the film’s climax, confronting his father about the pending sale of the house.
I mustn’t leave out Mo’Nique before moving on, however. As is often the case, she seems to carry entire scenes on her shoulders. Her acting chops, as well as her improvisational skills, are simply unparalleled, and she provides not only a brilliant comedic highlight for the rest of the family to revolve around, but a believable, gentle source of sisterly warmth for her brother in law Walter. Danny Glover and Mo’Nique have a wonderful, familial chemistry that works exactly as it needs to, to contribute to this film’s overall feeling of love and warmth.
There are other players as well, and they do their parts fine, but it is the adults which make up the core of the family who deserve the most attention. You could not ask for a better cast to work with this script. And as for the script, it just exudes sincerity in a way that most Christmas movies (the kind of Christmas movie I wrongly assumed this would be back in 2017) can only dream of.
It is a little cheesy at times, and Rachel’s whole story arc is precisely the sugary-sweet tsundere staple you expect it to be, but unlike the very similar main character story in Christmas in the Smokies, there is enough charisma and good writing here for you to take off your critic cap and just enjoy it.
I can hardly recommend this movie enough. It is in my yearly rotation, and I expect it always will be. If you haven’t seen it yet, I insist you treat yourself, and soon, and I’m giving it a
GBU Holiday-Adjusted Rating of 8/10
It is currently available for pay-per-view rental from all the standard VOD sites, or via Hulu’s or Sling’s TV subscription.
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