With a solid ensemble cast and a fittingly generous spirit, the holiday comedy "Almost Christmas" isn't without its laugh-out-moments. Even the Grinchiest of moviegoers will likely find themselves ho-ho-ho-ing from time to time at writer-director David E. Talbert's farce-fueled Christmas cookie.
As it turns out, though, those moments are more the exception than the rule. For most of its two-hour running time, "Almost Christmas" is merely almost funny.
That might be forgivable if Talbert's film was also almost original. But for all of its gloss, and for all of its production value, this is the kind of coming-home Christmas tale that is built on such an established formula -- and filled with so many clichés and archetypes -- that it's hard not to think, "Haven't I already seen this?"
The answer: Yes, you have, in one form or another. Even if the pieces are moved around a bit here and there, this has been done before, and better. What's more, no amount of tinsel can disguise that fact.
Danny Glover stars, playing the grieving patriarch of a sprawling, brawling extended family. His loving wife -- the sweet-faced, pie-baking angel that held the family together -- has died, as we learn in an admirably efficient opening montage, and now he must face the prospect of hosting his family's annual Christmas get-together without her.
It won't be easy. His two grown daughters (Gabrielle Union and Kimberly Elise) have never gotten along, and they still don't. His workaholic older son (Romany Malco) is running for political office and lives in a constant state of distraction. His youngest son (Jessie Usher), a college football star, is coming off an injury and is quietly dealing with a resulting addiction to pain pills.
Almost Christmas - Official Trailer (HD)
As they descend on their suburban Alabama home with their significant others, children and friends, their family holiday could be counted on to bring a dose of barely controlled chaos even if nothing went wrong. As it turns out, of course, everything will go wrong. The question then becomes whether they can spend five days together in the same house without killing one another.
As familiar as that setup sounds -- echoing any number of other family-oriented holiday comedies -- it could conceivably still work. That's especially true when considering the film's appealing cast, highlighted by such scene-stealing supporting players as Mo'Nique and J.B. Smoove, as a brassy aunt and a bumbling in-law, respectively. "Almost Christmas" is reliably funnier when either of them are on-screen. It's that much better when they're both on-screen together.
The problem is in the film's woefully predictable script, which goes exactly where you think it's going to go, and long before it goes there. When it's not engaging in obvious set-ups and punch lines -- as well as the obligatory mid-movie dance-off -- it is serving up corny helpings of unapologetic triteness.
Consequently, moviegoers can expect to find themselves rolling their eyes as much as laughing at Talbert's film, which I can imagine getting steady play on some cable channel or another over the next few holiday seasons.
What we end up with is a gingerbread cookie of a movie, one that is warm and sweet and which certainly looks appetizing. As the first full-on Christmas movie of the year, it also serves as a nice reminder that the holidays are actually here (because the unseasonably warm weather outside certainly isn't doing the trick on that front).
At the same time, it's not going to fill anybody up, and it's certainly not going to stick to anyone's ribs -- all of which makes "Almost Christmas" almost worthwhile.
ALMOST CHRISTMAS 2 stars, out of 5
Snapshot: An ensemble holiday comedy about the patriarch of a sprawling family who -- overseeing an annual family reunion for the first time since the death of their loving wife and mother -- makes but one request of his brood: that they all get along for five days.
Cast: Danny Glover, Gabrielle Union, Romany Malco, Jessie Usher, Kimberly Elise, Omar Epps, Mo'Nique, J.B. Smoove, Nicole Ari Parker, John Michael Higgins. Director: David E. Talbert. Rating: PG-13, for suggestive material, drug content and language. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes.