"All I'm asking is for five days for you all to act like a family," Walter Meyers (Danny Glover), a recent widower and patriarch of a dysfunctional Birmingham brood, pleads with his four bickering adult children as they arrive at his home to spend Christmas week together. And he gets his wish. Unfortunately for Walter, acting like family isn't always pretty. It involves pettiness, jealousy, name-calling, feuds, burnt casseroles, troublesome secrets, gunplay, gossip, complicated romances, and a decapitated (plastic) Santa. And laughter. Lots of laughter.
Almost Christmas, written and directed by David E. Talbert (Baggage Claim), begins with an effective title sequence that chronicles the Meyers' idyllic household from 1971, when Walter and his bride Grace wed, to early 2016, when Grace unexpectedly passes away. Fast-forward ten months, and now the Meyers clan are descending on their cherished Alabama homestead to celebrate the Yuletide season for the first time without their beloved matriarch. First to arrive is Aunt May (Mo'Nique), Walter's loud, opinionated sister-in-law, who has traveled the world as a backup singer for the likes of the Rolling Stones and Chaka Khan, and who immediately heads for the liquor cabinet. She knows a storm's a-brewin' and she's going to be prepared. Following her entrance are Walter's squabbling daughters Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) and Rachel (Gabrielle Union); Cheryl's dim-witted hubby Lonnie (J.B. Smoove), whose claim to fame are a brief stint in the NBA and a Croatian-basketball championship ring he uses to flirt with anything in a skirt; Walter's distracted, politicking eldest son Christian (Romany Malco) and his gorgeous wife Sonya (Nicole Ari Parker); and the family's youngest sibling Evan (Jessie T. Usher), a college gridiron star who is addicted to painkillers. Add to the mix three precocious grandchildren and a lovelorn neighbor (Omar Epps), and you have a bountiful recipe for holiday cheers, tears, and jeers.
Anyone buying a ticket to Almost Christmas already knows what to expect, and they'll get their money's worth. The movie aims to do nothing more than entertain and splash smiles on the faces of audience members as they exit the theater. And it achieves its dual intentions by doling out generous amounts of hearty laughter as the Meyers' convoluted gathering builds to a hilarious climax around the Christmas dinner table, during which a couple of family-altering secrets come tumbling out. If all of this sounds formulaic and predictable, it is. But Talbert's script is genuinely funny and sincerely moving, and his top-notch ensemble cast bring real depth to what could easily have been stock characters. Leading the way are Mo'Nique -- her scathing, witty put-downs are worth the price of admission alone -- and Smoove, whose hangdog expressions and sharp comic timing, especially during the chaotic holiday meal, are a hoot. And let's not forget Glover: He instills Walter with a quiet strength and dignity that anchor the whole enterprise and keep the shenanigans intact.
To say Almost Christmas is funny and heartwarming is, admittedly, a cliché. But that's exactly what it is. It's a surefire cure for the holiday blues.