Movies where a large family gathers to celebrate Christmas only have to nail one scene, and Almost Christmas does, more or less.
It’s the scene at Christmas dinner where everything comes to a head. You know the one: Every member of the family has their own little storyline, and the movie brings them together and throws in a snowball effect, so the plot gets bigger and bigger and rolls faster and faster.
Almost Christmas, which chronicles the first holiday gathering of the Meyers family after its matriarch dies, doesn’t have a perfect Christmas dinner scene, but it has a pretty good one. And to the film’s credit, it understands the importance of this scene in the narrative and makes sure most of its plot fireworks explode as the scene unfolds. It takes its time, and has a lot of fun letting its jokes simmer.
That’s why it’s too bad that such a successful Christmas dinner scene is stuck in a movie that’s otherwise pretty pedestrian.
Like all "family Christmas" movies, Almost Christmas is a little overstuffed. But unlike the best family Christmas movies, it can’t figure out which stories to focus on. It’s ultimately undercut by too many moments that fizzle out or seem to have no bearing on the anything else, and the result is one big mishmash.
Great cast, tho
If there’s one thing Almost Christmas director David E. Talbert gets right, it’s the cast. This film is stacked with heavyweights, both dramatic and comedic. It can go from Danny Glover's subtle tears as bereft family patriarch Walter, to Mo’Nique's wildly over-the-top comedic work as the flamboyant Aunt May, and back again without too much effort.
Some of the film’s characters feel tangential — I have no idea what John Michael Higgins is doing as the campaign manager for Walter’s oldest son, Christian (Romany Malco), or, for that matter, why Christian is embroiled in a political campaign in Alabama during Christmas 2016. But every major part has somebody solid in it. So when the film randomly turns its attention to some plot point you forgot about (like, say, the courtship of Walter’s younger daughter Rachel by a neighbor), at least it has good actors (in that case, Gabrielle Union and Omar Epps) to keep you interested.
Still, that randomness is a true problem, because Talbert isn’t quite sure how to cut between his various stories. At its best, a big ensemble piece like this feels like a symphony — this story rises in importance, and it gives increased prominence to this story, and then both comment obliquely on another story. It’s a bunch of melodies playing alongside each other, then harmonizing when you least expect it. (To see a good example, check out the French film A Christmas Tale. To see a pretty solid example, check out Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays.)
But Talbert’s stories don’t ever really harmonize. His characters have histories with each other that he frustratingly hides from the audience. Rachel and her older sister Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) resent each other for reasons that still aren’t quite clear when the movie ends. There are attempts to explain the tension, but they never feel organic so much as they feel like clumsy exposition.
Talbert’s direction mostly resorts to lots of shot/reverse shot combos, with medium close-ups on the characters talking to each other, cutting between their faces with each line of dialogue. That means the movie never builds any real rhythm, and the actors often feel isolated from one another. The few times when he steps back and lets a bunch of them occupy the frame together — as in the big dinner scene — are when the movie comes alive.
There are still riotously funny moments in Almost Christmas (mostly thanks to Mo’Nique, though J.B. Smoove gets a few choice scenes as well). Meanwhile, Glover knows how to make you tear up with the best of them, and the Christmas dinner scene is a highlight. If you’re looking for a little low-impact, comedic fun, well, Almost Christmas will probably get the job done, even if it will evaporate from memory almost immediately.
And, hey, at least it’s better than last year’s Love the Coopers in the "family Christmas" movie sweepstakes. That movie was narrated by a dog.