Friday, November 23, 2007

This Christmas

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Skeletons Aplenty in Dysfunctional Family Dramedy

For the first time in years, the scattered Whitfield siblings are returning to their childhood home in L.A. for a family reunion being hosted by their mother, Ma’ Dere (Loretta Devine) with the help of her longtime, live-in boyfriend, Joe Black (Delroy Lindo). But since each of the kids arrives not only with luggage but burdened by emotional baggage, there are some pressing issues which urgently need to be addressed before they can all comfortably share in the anticipated Christmas celebration
Uncompromising Kelli (Lauren Leal) has a very successful professional career in New York City, but no man in her life, because she’s picky and refuses to settle. Meanwhile, Melanie (Lauren London), in from Atlanta, is a free-spirited undergrad in her seventh year at Spelman College where she keeps changing her major to match that of her latest boy-toy. She’s brought along her latest, Devean (Keith Robinson), a pre-law major at neighboring Morehouse College.
Arriving from San Francisco is eldest sister Lisa (Regina King), who has suffered through a bad marriage to unfaithful and abusive Malcolm (Laz Alonso) only for the sake of their children. Now, the philandering creep is pressuring Lisa to ask her mother for money he wants to invest in a business deal with his mistress (Amy Hunter).
As for the Whitfield males, there’s hot-headed Claude (Columbus Short), on leave from the Marines, who’s hiding his white girlfriend, Sandi (Jessica Stroup), in a nearby hotel. He’s hesitant about introducing her to his folks, not only on account of her skin color, but because of some other big secrets they need to come clean about.
Quentin, Jr. (Idris Elba) is a struggling jazz saxophonist who has disappointed his mother by following in his father’s footsteps, given that the man turned out to be an unreliable husband and terrible provider. What Junior doesn’t know is that he’s been trailed all the way from Chicago by a couple of bookies (David Banner and Ronnie Warner) he owes $25,000.
Finally, there’s Michael (Chris Brown), the baby, who’s still living at home. This talented teen has been blessed with a beautiful singing voice, yet, he’s been reluctant to pursue his dream due to his mother’s aversion to show business.
Writer/director Preston A. Whitmore, Jr. does a decent job of interweaving the strands of these six leads’ predicaments in an entertaining fashion, even if the goings-on tend to be more cartoonish than credible. For some reason, he opted to lay on the violence, slapstick and sexuality more heavily than one would expect to find in a holiday film, developments which tend to mar what was ostensibly designed as a wholesome family flick.
Also negatively affecting the ambience are all the prominent ad placements for Cadillac, BMW, Rolling Rock Beer, Kool Aid, Harley Davidson, Louis Vuitton, and so forth. Not only do we see the products, but we often have to suffer through distracting dialogue extolling their virtues, and in one case, even naming the price of a car. For some reason, urban-oriented comedies and kiddie cartoons are the two genres of movies which tend to be overloaded with such obvious commercials.
Otherwise, there’s much reason to recommend This Christmas, starting with powerful performances by nearly every member of the principal cast. They happen to be quite convincing in conveying the feeling of a real family, and in generating the requisite chemistry or antipathy as called for by their dysfunctional characters’ dire circumstances.
Miraculously, all the skeletons are revealed and dealt with satisfactorily, thus enabling the very contented Whitfields to gather around the dinner table for a closing Kodak moment on Christmas day. No, actually that’s the penultimate tableau, as the film ends with the entire cast taking turns dancing down a Soul Train-style line.

Very Good (3 stars)
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and violence.
Running time: 117 minutes
Studio: Screen Gems

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