'This Christmas' a Rare Holiday Treat
By Lael Loewenstein, Variety.com
"This Christmas" is a rare holiday treat, a package that's both thoughtfully selected and sure to please its intended recipients. With its universal themes, highly marketable soundtrack and recognizable cast, this upbeat comedy centering on a black family's first reunion in four years has unique crossover potential for a variety of demographics, though Sony will have to work hard to make that happen theatrically. The pic should do respectable business this season but recoup very nicely as a holiday staple to be watched time and again.
With eager anticipation, family matriarch Ma'Dere Whitfield (Loretta Devine) awaits her brood's holiday homecoming. Joining her companion Joe (Delroy Lindo) and teenage son Baby (Chris Brown) are homemaker daughter Lisa (Regina King); tough but lonely businesswoman Kelli (Sharon Leal); conflicted college student Mel (Lauren London); returning Marine Claude (Columbus Short); and, surprisingly, traveling musician Quentin (Idris Elba). Current and prospective mates include Mel's beau Devean (Keith Robinson), Lisa's materialistic spouse, Malcolm (Laz Alonso); and a charming fireman (Mekhi Phifer) with eyes for Kelli.
That each of the family members conceals a secret to be revealed in time might seem formulaic, but Preston Whitmore II, helming his own script, has such an assured sense of rhythm and tone that the film moves smartly along. Various truths are exposed concerning Claude's lovelife and military status, Quentin's debts, Lisa's female intuition, Malcolm's extramarital activities and Baby's musical ambition, but these disclosures happen more or less organically. The latter revelation is the pic's sweetest surprise, as Brown ("Stomp the Yard"), a phenomenally talented performer, delivers a dazzling rendition of "Try a Little Tenderness."
That sequence is one of several musical interludes that fill "This Christmas" with an infectiously buoyant spirit. Brown also does a fine job with his climactic take on the title tune, and DeNetria Champ, as a gospel singer, offers a slow-building, deeply moving performance of "O Holy Night."
The soundtrack features a number of well-mounted holiday standards, including two family dance segments, the second of which feels like an indulgent, overlong coda that would have been better placed over the end credits. Still, it's unusual these days to find a holiday film that doesn't feel as recycled as a fruitcake.
Technical elements, including Alexander Gruszynski's lensing and Dawn Snyder's festive production design, are fine. Despite some recognizable L.A. locations and landmarks, including the El Rey Theater, the story's setting is never mentioned, and the pic is otherwise awfully heavy on the interiors.
The cast, led by veterans Lindo and Devine, is solid. If "This Christmas" is any indication, Whitmore, helming only his third feature (after the little-seen "Crossover" and "Walking Dead"), may well be a director to watch.
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