There’s this almost-forgotten Keanu Reeves movie, a formulaic kids’ sports comedy called “Hardball.” It had the great fortune of being the first lightweight film to arrive in theaters after the tragedy of 9/11, and audiences embraced it because it gave us permission to laugh and forget about the news for 100 minutes.
“Almost Christmas” is such a movie. It opens the weekend after the ugliest presidential election in living memory, a toxic year and a half of rising rage and divisiveness — racial, intellectual, moral and social. It’s not all that, but as holiday movie comfort food, it more than fills the bill.
Aside from the occasional blast of profanity and the odd risque moment, “Almost Christmas” sticks to the “Christmas Comedy” formula like, uh, white on rice.
Big family? Check. Everybody has a “secret”? Check.
A chance for romance? Check.
Tragedy hanging over the holidays, making everybody extra sentimental? Check.
Touch football game that gets out of hand? Check. Bad cooks clash with supposedly better cooks? Check. Awkward “one time a year we all go to church” scene? Check.
Uproarious Christmas Day dinner where it all comes to a head, comes apart before they can all come together? Check.
And does this variation on “This Christmas/The Family Stone/Christmas with the Kranks” play? Pretty much.
Fortuitous timing makes this, the first “holiday” film of 2016, a welcome release from the round-the-clock hype of Decision 2016. All we have to decide, for the David E. Talbert film’s 112 overlong minutes, is just how badly we’ve needed the release of a few laughs, how much we’ve missed the Oscar-winning rants of sassy loose-cannon Mo’Nique.
Danny Glover is Walter, the Birmingham, Alabama patriarch of the Meyers family. He buried his wife this year. He’s got the contract to sell this big two-story wood-frame house they raised their children in. But he’s not told anybody that as he rounds up his brood for one big five-day blast of togetherness and tetchiness.
Gabrielle Union and Kimberly Elise are the two sisters who never quite got along. One (Union) is divorced, with a kid and law school putting her in the red. The other (Elise) is a dentist, with an insanely flirtatious dead weight husband (JB Smoove) who uses his single season in the NBA and Croatian League championship ring as a come-on to anything in a skirt.
The oldest son (Romany Malco) is running for Congress, and can’t leave his campaign manager (John Michael Higgins) behind, even for the holidays. His wife (Nicole Ari Parker) is not amused.
The youngest Meyers son (Jesse Usher) is a college footballer with draft day dreams and a serious painkiller addiction he’s hiding.
And then there’s Aunt May, a larger than life backup singer to the stars given a larger-than-life (and hoarse) energy by Mo’Nique.
Aunt May has been exposed to the world’s great cuisines by the likes of Ike and Tina, Mick and Chaka. And her family isn’t having it.
She’s fully aware that five days is entirely too long for this much togetherness, but Walter has a liquor cabinet. Just the clear booze, thank-you.
“Dark liquor make a bitch wanna fight.”
She’s not going to let all these folks, some with bratty kids given to live-streaming the family’s more unpleasant moments, spoil her holiday. With a “kiss my” this or “you stupid” that, May, sister Walter’s sainted late wife, fends off her greatest fear this holiday season.
“This gon’ blow my buzz.”
You’ve seen Mo’Nique’s funniest lines in the film’s trailers, though there are outtakes over the credits that suggest other moments hit the cutting room floor.
It’s still amusing to see the gorgeous Union throwing herself into physical comedy, Elise and Smoove going at it and Omar Epps as the guy next door Rachel (Union) won’t have anything to do with, no matter how charming he tries to be or how available she allegedly is.
Talbert (“First Sunday”) never gets in a hurry and waits to bring all that’s going on here to a boil. “Almost Christmas” never comes close to being a romp, and the sentimental scenes outnumber the funny ones, with most of the funny-ones predicated on comic low-hanging fruit. Kids used as guinea pigs for Aunt May’s latest culinary experiment, Uncle Larry (Smoove) bungling a repair on the rooftop Santa, sexy Rachel getting locked out of the house in lingerie.
But timing, in comedy, is everything. And even if Mo’Nique is the one member of the cast capable of putting on a clinic in whiplash-quick one-liners, “Almost Christmas” has this going for it.
At least it’s not about Trump. Or Clinton. Or racism, sexism, e-mails or orange wigs.
Well, aside from Aunt May’s “Chaka Khan! Chaka Khan!” hair.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for suggestive material, drug content and language
Cast: Danny Glover, Mo’Nique, Gabrielle Union, JB Smoove, Kimberly Elise, Romany Malco, Omar Epps, Nicole Ari Parker, Jesse Usher, D.C. Young Fly
Credits:Written and directed by David E. Talbert. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:52