Fireside is blazing bright
With Preston Whitmore II’s This Christmas, it’s easier to talk about the movie’s shortcomings than its virtues. One could argue that it isn’t very good, or at least that it shouldn’t be as good as it is. But there’s a genuine feeling of a real family’s real Christmas, with all its heat as well as warmth, the kind of thing that’s missing from the plastic platitudes of holiday junk like Fred Claus and The Santa Clause. Writer-director Whitmore gets the one big thing exactly right; the rest is nitpicking.
There’s probably an element of autobiography in Whitmore’s script, if only because he names his family Whitfield. Matriarch Shirley (Loretta Devine), known affectionately as “Ma’Dere,” runs a dry-cleaning store and lives in a classy Los Angeles neighborhood with longtime boyfriend Joe Black (Delroy Lindo)—although Joe has to move out for the holidays when her grown children come home. It’s a little game Ma’Dere plays with the kids: She pretends Joe doesn’t sleep there, and they pretend they don’t know that he does.
Or at least most of them do. The youngest, Michael (Chris Brown), still lives at home, so he knows and approves. Meanwhile, Quentin (Idris Elba), the oldest, doesn’t like Joe and cherishes a sullen fantasy that the musician father who abandoned them 17 years earlier will someday return—which is ironic, since Quentin (an itinerant saxophonist himself) hasn’t been home for Christmas in four years.
But we see the rest of the clan gather, and in introducing them Whitmore is leisurely almost—but not quite—to a fault. There’s eldest daughter Lisa (Regina King) and her controlling husband Malcolm (Laz Alonso); Claude (Columbus Short), a Marine on holiday leave; Kelli (Sharon Leal), a married-to-her-career woman whose only boyfriend fits in one hand and runs on batteries; and college student Mel (Lauren London) with her latest flame Devean (Keith Robinson). For a while, we’re just as bewildered by the ongoing family dynamics as Devean is, and it takes us almost as long to get our bearings.
And finally, to everyone’s surprise, even Quentin shows up—though he’s as surly toward Joe as ever, and the family doesn’t know (at first) that he’s on the run from some Chicago loan sharks to whom he owes $25,000. We also learn, in the movie’s own time, that middle son Claude has a couple of secrets of his own—like a relationship with a white woman he hasn’t told his family about.
So the whole family is home for Christmas, with all their baggage. In addition to what’s happening with Quentin and Claude, Michael wants to pursue a career as a singer (Brown gets to cover “Try a Little Tenderness,” as well as Donny Hathaway’s title tune), but doesn’t know how to break the news to Ma’Dere, who distrusts musicians ever since her husband left (and because even Quentin is absent too long at a time). Bossy Lisa wants to sell Ma’Dere’s business, and even the family home, and use the money to buy her snake husband’s continued loyalty.
Whitmore flirts with melodrama, but he doesn’t go home with it. Even the loan sharks, when they show up (played by David Banner and Ronnie Warner), are comic relief as much as menace. But there’s a trade-off; in avoiding melodrama, Whitmore tidies things up a little too easily. And he glosses over issues that have real dramatic implications—the simmering resentment between housewife Lisa and career-woman Kelli, Claude’s secrets, Quentin’s money troubles—in favor of others that seem contrived, like Ma’Dere’s aversion to music. And he dips into Tyler Perry farce at times, especially in the final confrontation between Lisa and her cheating husband.
So much for the nitpicking. What Whitmore gets right is the tension and loving squabbles of a real family, thanks as much to his well-modulated ear for kitchen-and-dinner-table dialogue as to his stellar cast (including Mekhi Phifer as a romantic interest for Leal). Whitmore and cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski give the whole film the warm glow of a crackling winter fireplace.
Whitmore winds things up with a line-dancing curtain call by most of his cast; it goes on too long, perhaps, but it’s such high-spirited fun that it seems churlish to quibble about it. That’s This Christmas in a nutshell.