Over the years, the home-for-the-holidays packaged family Christmas comedy has evolved into a rather odd ritual: a sugar cookie covered in bitter sprinkles. When a movie like “Almost Christmas” comes out, never mind the fact that it isn’t even almost Christmas. As long as the word “Christmas” is in the title, a great many of us will be lured into Pavlovian anticipation of a movie that’s full of toasty, old-fashioned Yuletide sentiment. But, of course, that’s only half of what the genre now offers. Ever since the ’80s, when John Hughes and “A Christmas Story” reconfigured the holiday movie into something that merged nostalgia with knockabout yocks, there’s been a how low can you go? quality to the annual rite of the megaplex Christmas flick. We want these movies to end with a big spiritual lump-in-the-throat, and they always do, but the way we want to get there is to crawl through as much familial misery and backbiting as possible. If Frank Capra were alive today, the movie he’d be making would be called “It’s a Dysfunctional Life.”
A bad Christmas movie can give off all the warmth of a televised yule log, but David E. Talbert, the writer-director of “Almost Christmas,” has assembled a gifted cast and given them a chance to stretch out and play with their roles. He has made a heartwarming gripe-and-grouchfest that pushes a lot of buttons, though with a vivacity that’s exuberantly funny and sincere. Even when the plot comes out of the soap-opera (or sitcom) cookie cutter, “Almost Christmas” is infused with winning doses of personality. It’s a relax-into-formula movie: You know you’re watching a piece of confectionary engineering (that’s part of its homespun appeal), but the fun these actors are having with their roles is something that can’t be faked.
The movie gets the feel-good seasonal cheer out of the way fast. Walter Meyers, played by Danny Glover in top form, is a weary saint of a patriarch, a retired mechanic who owned a chain of auto shops and is now getting ready to spend the holiday with his four adult children and their spouses and kids. They’ve been invited to show up at his roomy old house in Birmingham five days before Christmas, only this year the reunion is bittersweet: It’s the family’s first Christmas since the death of Walter’s wife, Grace, and the film flashes back to show us a relationship that was a 45-year domestic idyll, all starting in the “Ain’t No Woman” glory days of the early ’70s. Even when their home overflowed with the chaos of children (including a “surprise” midlife fourth), they kept their wits and affection, and their rootedness in an older, better world symbolized by Grace’s recipes, especially her sweet-potato pie.
Walter keeps trying to recreate that pie with disastrous results, but that’s the least of his problems. You know the drill: The moment this family comes together under one roof, they’re falling apart. You can tell where a lot of things are heading from the earliest scenes, though that doesn’t mean there isn’t a basic gratification in seeing the pieces come together. Gabrielle Union plays Rachel, a recently divorced mom trying to reinvent herself by going to law school (which she can’t afford), and the moment she runs into Malachi (Omar Epps), the grown-up kid next door she somehow avoided going to prom with, we know just where that one’s going. Union, however, is charming: She plays Rachel with a beaming grin that can’t disguise her flickers of financial dread.
The real drama is in the claw-baring rivalry between Rachel and her overachieving big sister, Cheryl (Kimberly Elise), who can’t resist the urge to needle her sibling when she’s down. Her hostility might seem a bit over-the-top if the movie didn’t cue us to see that Cheryl was keeping a lid on her own boiling pot of frustration — the one that comes of being married to Lonnie (JB Smoove), a slacker cutup and former professional basketball player who finds a way to turn every situation into a solipsistic standup routine. He seems harmless — and JB Smoove’s fast-break timing and hangdog mugging keep us hooked — until it turns out that he’s got a serious wandering eye. When Rachel discovers that he’s enjoyed a dalliance with a supermarket clerk (played by the scene-stealing Keri Hilson), she “innocently” invites her to Christmas dinner — a time bomb with a major payoff.
The movie sprinkles in some big broad laughs, a handful of which are blatant pandering, like a thudding “Home Alone Lite” sequence with Lonnie rigging up an electric Santa sculpture on the roof, or an incongruous bit of raunchy slapstick in which Malachi, from behind, helps to unstick Rachel from a window. But one of the strengths of Talbert’s humane commercialism is that even when he goes broad, he tends to do it with timing and style. Meaning more or less everything that Mo’Nique says. She plays Aunt May, a former backup singer for rock stars around the world, and whether she’s serving up her icky fusion recipes or speaking her mind with lewd gusto (“I got vibrators older than that child!” she says of a young man giving her the eye), Mo’Nique makes her a hellion who will hammer — hilariously — on the weak points of anyone within earshot. She also leads a great multi-generational kitchen dance-off, winning it with her moves to the Dazz Band’s “Let It Whip.” Mostly, though, she sounds like the first woman ever to be rejected from “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” for being too nasty.
Unless you think it’s a spoiler to reveal that a Christmas movie has a happy ending, I’ll say that “Almost Christmas” culminates in a convincing splurge of hugs, reconciliations, flowers of romance, a key character deciding not to go through with a sneaky real-estate deal, and one very righteous divorce. Even 74 years ago, in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1942) — and a hundred years before that, in “A Christmas Carol” (1843) — Capra and Dickens understood that the best way to give an audience that warm-and-toasty holiday feeling was to let them have a tiny peek into the abyss. What’s the point of being saved by all that Christmas love if you don’t know what you’re being saved from? The funny thing is, we now live in such an emotionally fractured era that the comic stress and strife that drives a movie like “Almost Christmas” is the very essence of its sentimentality. The message is that things will get better, but the real message is: If you’ve got a family that looks like this, don’t fret. You are not alone.