If the plotline of “Christmas in Compton” were a tree, it would be dropping pine needles all over South Central. But with a first-rate cast led by Keith David and Sheryl Lee Ralph, generously funny dialogue and a supporting cast capable of crisp comic timing, writer-director David Raynr’s feature is warm and likable enough to jumpstart the holiday movie season. The PG-13 rating aside, it feels like acceptable family fare and, with a push, could do across-the-board business.
When Big Earl (David) isn’t running his Christmas tree lot in Compton, he’s serving as neighborhood elder — selling trees; tutoring kids; sparring with his potential love interest and Kwanzaa enthusiast, Abuta (Ralph); and being unhappy with his live-in son, Derrick (Omar Gooding). Derrick is an aspiring music producer who hasn’t managed to get paid for his labors: He’s already had one act stolen by nefarious record exec Tommy Maxwell (a well-cast Eric Roberts) and is about to have another, the girl trio Sugar Stuff, ripped off, too. Derrick isn’t good with fine print, and Big Earl is running out of patience.
Derrick, naturally, is smitten by the new girl at his dad’s lot: Kendra (Porscha Coleman), who looks good running a forklift and is a single mother. “Does the fact that my mom has an 8-year-old child change your feelings about her?” asks her precocious daughter, Sierra (Jayda Brown), which is funnier than it sounds. So is the repartee that goes on among the various comedy sidekicks who hang around Earl’s place, like Pookie (Edwin Hodge) and Squeaky (Arif S. Kinchen). “LWW at 12 o’clock,” says one. “Lost white woman?” asks the other. (That the woman in question, played by Malin Yhr, hangs around until the end of the movie is among the movie’s subtler gags.)
Determined to keep Tommy from taking Sugar Stuff, Derrick resorts to robbing the exec’s house, gassing everyone with anesthetic pesticide and stealing a diamond ring off Tommy’s wife. In trying to fence it, he runs into Delicious (Miguel Nunez, one of the pic’s funnier cast members), and the complications multiply. “Christmas in Compton” has a bit of an antiquated take on the record business, but its charms lie in its humor, not its business acumen.
It helps that the jokes aren’t cheap. There is the token funny Korean (an amusing Charles Kim), and Tommy, of course, is the evil white guy, but mostly Raynr’s comedy is race-neutral and pretty sharp. Despite the microbudget look and occasionally overdone music, it’s the cast, including the various bit players, that makes “Christmas in Compton” a modest gift.