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Maybe it's because I just sat through the lazy, depressing Fred Claus. Maybe it's because I was expecting Tyler Perry in drag. Maybe it's because my holiday spirit is at an all-time low. Whatever the reason, This Christmas came as a complete surprise. I kinda loved the thing.
Loretta Devine plays Ma Dear, the matriarch of a sprawling Los Angeles-based family with a whole lot of secrets. A whole lot. There's Quentin (Idris Elba, Stringer Bell on The Wire -- the best show on television), a musician who owes big money to some bookies. There's Lisa (Regina King), trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage with the hissable Malcome (Laz Alonso). There's Kelli (Sharon Leal), a sexually frustrated businesswoman. There's Claude (Columbus Short), in love with a woman (Jessica Stroup) he's scared to introduce to his family. Ma Dear has a secret of her own regarding Joe (Delroy Lindo), something of a surrogate father to the Whitfield clan. Oh, and Baby (R&B sensation Chris Brown)? He wants to sing, damn it!
That's a lot of stories to keep afloat, and writer/director Preston A. Whitmore II handles that list and many more mini-dramas with ease. It's quite the balancing act. Whitmore has written and/or directed several smaller projects since 1995's Vietnam drama The Walking Dead, but Christmas will put him on the map in a big way.
This Christmas never achieves excellence, but it consistently hits "very good," and it never drops into "good enough." The funny moments aren't knee-slappers, but they bring big smiles. The dramatic moments aren't tear-jerkers, but they make you feel. The musical numbers aren't expertly staged, but they certainly get the toes tapping. Plus, the romances work, the food looks delicious, and there are completely unexpected (and welcome!) dollops of sexuality and violence. I'm happy when a holiday movie does one thing right. Christmas rarely steps wrong.
I never questioned that the Whitfield clan was a living, breathing family unit. They feel a lot more real than Steve Carell's family in the recent Dan in Real Life. Family is not just window dressing in service of a romance here, as it was in Dan. Each character, except for the adorable kids (thank goodness), is developed and explored. The cast is uniformly excellent -- a big bunch of actors who should, and will, work a lot more. Devine, always a lovable presence, does her best work here. She and a typically excellent Lindo drip chemistry. Of the younger cast, King and Leal are standouts. King grounds her story even when it slips into semi-ludicrous territory, and Leal does fine work while being one of the more beautiful women I've seen on screen recently. (How beautiful? In one sequence, I noticed a lack of nipple continuity. Not proud of that.)
But I'd imagine you crazy kids want to know about Chris Brown. Does he sing? Does he dance? Do you see him with his shirt off? Yes, yes, and yes. Though I'm not yet sold on Brown as a musical performer who will stand the test of time (mimicking Michael Jackson doesn't make you Michael Jackson -- this goes for you too, Timberlake!), he's got a low-key charm here, and holds his own acting-wise. He sings twice, and they're clearly sequences designed to catapult him to the next level.
I'm not so sure they'll have that effect. For his first showcase scene, Whitmore doesn't do Brown any favors having him tackle Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness." Brown does a capable job with the song, but why have the kid face off against one of the most thrilling vocal performances in popular music? It probably doesn't matter, as a lot of Brown's young fans won't have heard the masterful original and will go nuts anyway. For my money, Brown fares much better with Donny Hathaway's simpler "This Christmas."
There is a an abundance of great soul music, holiday-themed and otherwise, in This Christmas. That's a big part of the movie's immense charm, and music shops near theaters playing the film had better stock up on the soundtrack, fast. Christmas closes with a ridiculously long and thoroughly winning "dance line," with each member of the cast performing some improvised moves to Marvin Gaye's classic "Got to Give It Up." This feels very much like a closing credits sequence, but Whitmore doesn't scroll them. He just turns the camera on and lets his characters work it -- the credits can wait.
The whole movie is like that -- the cast and the filmmakers take their time. It's a refreshing change of pace, and as I tried to contain my own dancing on the way out, it occurred to me that I would have happily spent another hour with the Whitfield family. This Christmas is like a two hour cup of hot chocolate and marshmallows. It's not mind-blowing, it's not breaking any new ground, but it really hits the spot and makes you feel good. This is the kind of film that families will enjoy for this and many Christmases to come.