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The Perfect Holiday

There's a lot of sap in this Christmas tree. The self-proclaimed "first African-American ensemble comedy" of the season (despite following November hit "This Christmas"),

Benjamin - Morris Chestnut Nancy - Gabrielle Union Narrator - Queen Latifah Bah-Humbug - Terrence Howard John-John - Malik Hammond J-Jizzy - Charlie Murphy Emily - Khail Bryant Jamal - Faizon Love Delicious - Katt Williams Mikey - Jeremy Gumbs Robin - Jill Marie Jones Brenda - Rachel True

There’s a lot of sap in this Christmas tree. The self-proclaimed “first African-American ensemble comedy” of the season (despite following November hit “This Christmas”), helmer Lance Rivera’s romance “The Perfect Holiday” is neither perfect nor much of a holiday, more like a fruitcake passed around from arthritic aunt to demented uncle — stale, predictable and made with fossilized ingredients. Box office will be healthy enough, given its aim at an underserved audience, although pic can’t quite be called much of a service to anybody.

Seizing upon that perennial yuletide staple, divine intervention, “The Perfect Holiday” opens with Queen Latifah as some kind of angel (she’s identified only as the “narrator”), trying to catch the first snowflake of the winter on her tongue. It’s an appealing image. Belittling her efforts is Bah-Humbug, her antithesis in Christmas cheer (played by Terrence Howard, who seems to have lost a bet).

The mortals they’ll be following are Nancy (Gabrielle Union), a single mother of three who’s in the midst of a nasty custody battle with her ex, rapper-producer J-Jizzy (a delightfully obnoxious Charlie Murphy). How these two got involved in the first place is the great mystery of the movie, since Nancy is womanly perfection and Jizzy makes Snoop Dogg seem like Noel Coward. Anyway, all Nancy would like is for a normal man to pay her a compliment and then go away. When her daughter Emily (Khail Bryant) pays a visit to the local department store, she tells Santa her mama’s Christmas wish.

In the movie’s second major implausibility, Santa is being impersonated by aspiring singer-songwriter Benjamin Armstrong (Morris Chestnut), who’ so good-looking that any store manager with half a brain would have at least moved him to fragrances. But no, he’s got a lap full of kiddies and a heart full of love: As Latifah has shown us, he’d give his last five bucks to the homeless and is so touched by Emily’s plea that he sets out to pay Nancy a compliment. Which he does. And then walks away.

This, of course, is the equivalent of an all-points bulletin to Nancy and her two BFFs (the wonderful pair of Jill Marie Jones and Rachel True). Like drug-sniffing dogs at the airport, they track down Benjamin, in the meantime encountering his fat friend Jamal (the ever-funny Faizon Love) and hooking Nancy up with Benjamin in a scene that would give auds diabetes even if it weren’t staged in a candy store.

With the exception of Chestnut, who seems to be under the impression he’s in a Bloomingdale’s catalog rather than a romantic comedy, the cast is good — including the kids, even though they serve rather perfunctory duties: The oldest, John-John (Malik Hammond), develops a virulent allergy to Benjamin, hoping instead his parents will get back together and sabotaging an otherwise dare-we-say-it-perfect affair of the heart. Complicating matters is Benjamin’s enlistment by Jizzy’s manager, Delicious (a terrifically droll Katt Williams), to help out with Jizzy’s Christmas album, which at that point consists only of such surefire hits as “I Love the Ho Ho Hos” and “I Saw Mommy Capping Santa Claus.”

The device of having Howard and Latifah (one of the film’s producers) only occasionally enter the picture to perform some kind of idle magic feels so tacked on, it’s ludicrous (not Ludacris). But from the opening credits, which have the retro look of an old “Lucy Show,” nothing here seems to have been sufficiently thought out.

Adding to the pic’s lack of seasonal cheer is the blandness of the cinematography and production design.

The Perfect Holiday

Production: A Yari Film Group release, presented with Destination Films, in association with Flavor Unit Films and Truenorth, of a Capital Arts Entertainment production. Produced by Mike Elliott, Joseph P. Genier, Marvin Peart, Shakim Compere, Queen Latifah, Leifur B. Dagfinnsson. Executive producer, BTB. Co-producers, Lance Rivera, Rodney Shealey. Directed by Lance Rivera. Screenplay, Rivera, Marc Calixte, Nat Mauldin, Jeff Stein; story, Rivera, Calixte.

Crew: Camera (color), Teodoro Maniaci; editor, Paul Trejo; music, Christopher Lennertz; music supervisor, Paul Di Franco; production designer, Anne Stuhler; art director, Randall Richard; costume designer, Misa Hylton-Brim; sound (Dolby Digital); associate producers, Otis Best, Stevie "Black" Lockett; casting, Leah Daniels-Butler. Reviewed at Sunset screening room, West Hollywood, Dec. 5, 2007. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 96 MIN.

With: Benjamin - Morris Chestnut Nancy - Gabrielle Union Narrator - Queen Latifah Bah-Humbug - Terrence Howard John-John - Malik Hammond J-Jizzy - Charlie Murphy Emily - Khail Bryant Jamal - Faizon Love Delicious - Katt Williams Mikey - Jeremy Gumbs Robin - Jill Marie Jones Brenda - Rachel True

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