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Mo’Nique, left, uses her talents mostly for comic good as Aunt May in Almost Christmas, which also stars Kimberly Elise, centre, and Gabrielle Union.

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Almost Christmas
Written by
David E. Talbert
Directed by
David E. Talbert
Starring
Danny Glover, Omar Epps, Kimberly Elise
Genre
Comedy
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2016

In the opening moments of Almost Christmas, two things are made very clear: Walter (Danny Glover) loves his wife, Grace, and he loves her sweet potato pie.

To illustrate the latter, director David E. Talbert flashes back to the 1970s and shows the young couple enjoying a slice in bed; to illustrate the former, he flashes forward in increments, pausing every few years to introduce us to a new member of the family, one after the other, after the other, after the other … until we hit December, 2015, and Walter's enormous family is absent: the kids – all five of them – have moved out, and his beloved Grace has passed away.

He's not keen to spend the entire holiday season alone in the family home, though, so he phones each and every member of his brood and invites them to stay with him for the five days leading up to Christmas. They agree, but with five kids comes five individual dramas, career struggles, existential crises and marital tensions – not to mention some serious sibling rivalry. And they all want a slice of the literal pie: with Grace no longer living, it's up to Walter to replicate his late wife's famous sweet potato dessert.

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And so, Almost Christmas sets into motion the oldest premise in the family holiday film book: Can the entire brood all make it through the holidays without tearing each other limb from limb? And will there be pie?

The conceit – family drama threatens to ruin Christmas – is a bit trite. But Almost Christmas goes light enough on the cliché and gives the stacked cast – which also includes J.B. Smoove, Gabrielle Union, Omar Epps and Romany Malco – enough decent material that the film remains relatively lively.

It also crucially adds Mo'Nique, making her return in a wide-release film for the first time since her Oscar-winning turn in 2009's Precious. Here, her talents are used mostly for comic good: as Aunt May, a storied backup singer and Grace's sister, she is removed enough from the family's tight-knit drama that she can diffuse it with a wisecrack and a sharp look, but close enough to Walter that she grounds the family when the drama gets too overwhelming for him.

The main trouble, though, is that giving each of Walter's five kids their own personal crisis – from divorce to political strife, all of which must be explained, extrapolated, hit a breaking point and then be resolved within the film's run time – means it's hard to get significantly invested in any one of them. And, when you add five individual crises to a whole whack of adjacent dramas – the tragedy of a dead parent, the potential loss of a family home, that damn pie – and top the whole thing with the requisite holiday cheer and ornament-related sight gags, the film threatens to buckle under its nearly two-hour run time.

Talbert also shoehorns most of the film's meatier stuff into the last 20 minutes, which gets a bit awkward: A dining room table confrontation played for laughs cuts back and forth to an impaired driving accident waiting to happen. It completely knocks the wind out of what could otherwise be a hilarious dinner table scene.

Almost Christmas isn't likely destined for holiday mainstay status, but it's a comfortably watchable family film, buoyed by a strong cast, and very few saccharine moments. Like Walter's pie, it might be impossible to digest were it any more sweet.

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