Like the most dreaded Secret Santa at the office holiday party, Hollywood is a shameless re-gifter, passing off the same ensemble comedy-drama every year or two in lieu of a more thoughtful present. Almost Christmas is better than most, and rare in focusing on an African-American family instead of a bourgeois white one, like the brittle clan in last year's seasonal heart-warmer Love the Coopers. But even the title is so generic that years from now, no one could reasonably be expected to remember if they've seen it or This Christmas, Four Christmases, Surviving Christmas, or I'll Be Home for Christmas. And that's entirely by design: Audiences don't have to shake the box to guess what they're getting.
The best Almost Christmas can do is win in the margins, and that starts with Danny Glover's emotionally authentic performance as Walter Meyers, a widower facing his first Christmas alone since his wife's death. From the Up-like montage that opens the film, we know that Walter and his wife were happily married for over 40 years and had four children and several grandchildren, and that she made a mean sweet potato pie. That pie is the Proustian madeleine that unlocks Walter's memories of her, but the recipe proves elusive for him, as does the prospect of holding his fractious family together. His one modest request is for his now-adult children, their spouses, and their kids to peacefully coexist for five days under one roof in Birmingham, Alabama.
The conflicts are all absurdly half-baked, there only for the sake of an easy resolution. The recently divorced Rachel (Gabrielle Union), who's had trouble mustering any career ambitions, resents her successful older sister Cheryl (Kimberly Elise), though Cheryl's seemingly perfect life is undercut by a buffoonish husband (Smoove B) with a wandering eye. His sons have no trouble getting along, but they're each consumed by outside pressures: Christian (Romany Malco), a slick local politician, is in the middle of election season and has his campaign manager (John Michael Higgins) in tow, and Evan (Jessie Usher), a college football prospect, has developed a prescription drug habit while trying to combat a shoulder injury.
The chaos agent in this scenario is Aunt May, Walter's sister-in-law, who takes it upon herself to wrangle the troops when his authority starts to waver. Played by Mo'Nique in a movie-stealing performance, Aunt May spent time as a backup singer to several major rock and R&B outfits of the past several decades, and, fittingly, she thrives the most in situations that are veering out of control. She serves up a gruesome dinner of exotic recipes from tours past, offers profane dressings-down to whoever needs it, and seems almost giddy when a mistress turns up for Christmas dinner. Mo'Nique doesn't do small moments and writer-director David E. Talbert (Baggage Claim) is content to give her all the latitude she needs to turn contrived comic premises into extended, bawdy setpieces.
Almost Christmas plays both sides of the comedy-drama equation broadly, which serves one at the expense of the other. There's a steep drop from Mo'Nique riffing spontaneously through a scene to the rote business of tying up loose ends on subplots Talbert evidently doesn't value. Rachel and Cheryl need to work out their differences, Christian needs to stop triangulating and stick to his political principles, and Evan needs to lay off the pills—Talbert dusts off all three as easily as dinner crumbs on linen. That just leaves Glover, the withered soul of Almost Christmas, to give this shambling retread the taste of something real, one stingy little bite of the pie.