It seems like every year some studio releases a harmless yet predictable holiday comedy centering on an ensemble cast of recognizable actors (usually as disparate members of a family) in an effort to capitalize on the “most wonderful time of the year.” Films like last year’s Love the Coopers and Christmas with the Kranks are smart investments for production companies because of their broad appeal and moderate budgets. So, naturally, 2016 isn’t without its own edition of this reliable trend. Fans of those films should then be quite pleased with this year’s model: Almost Christmas.
The movie – written and directed by David E. Talbert (First Sunday) – centers on Walter Meyers (Danny Glover), the patriarch of a dysfunctional family. Just days before the first Christmas after his wife’s death, Walter attempts to reunite his children for the holidays. Busy with their own lives and still processing the grief of their mother’s passing, the Meyers kids clash upon their reunion, and hilarity ensues. For anyone who has ever seen a Christmas comedy in this ilk, it’s pretty clear from the get-go where Almost Christmas is going, but that’s not to say that the film ever falls completely flat.
Sure, there’s a number of stereotypical character arcs – an uptight, independent single mother who refuses to acknowledge the eligible bachelor that care for her, the workaholic father who needs to re-prioritize the importance of family – and all the lowest common denominator sequences one would expect from a broad comedy are accounted for. A dance sequence, a football game and even a bit of superfluous melodrama involving addiction all play a role in Almost Christmas, as if it’s a feature-length adaptation of a 1990s sitcom. However, for all its flaws, there’s something kind of charming about the film.
Undoubtedly, at the center of that is Glover. The veteran actor brings such implicit warmth to the role of Walter that audiences can’t help but empathize with him. As the heart of the film, none of Almost Christmas works without this casting, and Talbert chose wisely in Glover, who brings an effortless bittersweet quality to the film that elevates the relatively unambitious script. He even gets to employ his famous Lethal Weapon catchphrase at a key point, as if to highlight the nostalgia factor that comes into play whenever he’s onscreen.
The rest of the ensemble cast ranges from charismatic to effective. Among the standouts is Gabrielle Union, who brings her natural charisma as the aforementioned single mother. Since Union is also an executive producer on Almost Christmas, naturally hers is one of the better developed characters in the bunch, though the film oddly saddles her with a lot of physical comedy. Moreover, Jessie T. Usher demonstrates a level of charm that was sadly lacking from this summer’s Independence Day: Resurgence, and comedians Mo’Nique and J.B. Smoove do exactly what you’d expect them to but contribute many of the film’s biggest laughs as a result.
While Almost Christmas is ultimately a mixed bag consisting mostly of pretty straightforward humor, the film has few moments that really miss the mark. The low-hanging fruit of its comedy and family drama help it to go down easy and should appeal to mainstream audiences simply looking for a way to take their minds off of the many distractions in the news. In addition, Almost Christmas serves as credible counter-programming to the season’s big-budget spectacle (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and heavier awards contenders (Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight). With a reported budget of just $17 million, Talbert’s film helps to keep the mid-budget release of Hollywood’s recent past alive and well.
To be sure, Almost Christmas doesn’t break any new ground. There’s nothing about the film that transcends the genre or feels particularly clever. But, to be fair, it never tries or intends to. Instead, thanks to the charming cast Talbert has assembled, the film works as a fun, albeit disposable, holiday comedy. Those moviegoers looking for a more original holiday treat this season may be better off looking elsewhere. However, if the cast and premise of Almost Christmas capture your interest, rest assured in knowing that the film does deliver on what its marketing campaign promises: a cliché-ridden series of gags that are brought to life by a talented group of performers committed enough to make it work. It’s not a surefire winner, but Almost Christmas is close enough to being a good film that it’s easy to recommend.
Almost Christmas doesn't set a new standard for family holiday comedies, but its cast and a handful of outrageously funny moments make it worthwhile for fans of the genre.