Preston A. Whitmore II apparently wants to be the West Coast Tyler Perry. Of course, after signing his name to the spectacularly awful Crossover (2006), it’s perfectly understandable that he’d want to be somebody else. For This Christmas he’s obviously studied the Perry formula, and he’s followed it to a large extent. He has the large—and largely black—ensemble cast. He has the stage-mentality enclosed environment (the better to pressure-cook the functionally dysfunctional family at hand). He even has the typical Perry-ized, no-good, low-down cheating husband plot device, complete with the disturbingly drastic comeuppance for the filthy hound in question. Whitmore goes so far as to offer a family matriarch named Ma’Dere (played by the splendid Loretta Devine), which is pronounced uncomfortably close to Perry’s signature Madea character.
But somehow Whitmore is incapable of reproducing the maestro’s flat-footed directing style, his ham-fisted religiosity or his Limburger-laden melodrama. The result is that Whitmore has crafted a breezily likable little film—one that’s a little more like life than those of his apparent role model and certainly one that looks, feels and more importantly moves like a movie. Oh, it’s not great, and it’s probably not headed for the select pantheon of Christmas classics. It’s too long for its own good. It has as many ridiculous plot devices as a Christmas fruitcake has raisins. But it’s too pleasant to dislike while it’s on the screen, even if it has very little staying power after the fact.
In terms of plot, This Christmas is unremarkable. It all centers on a Christmas gathering of the Whitfield clan (is there a whiff of autobiography in the family name?), and as befits such a concept, nearly everyone involved has at least one secret—a secret that’s often less secret than is presumed. For example, it’s supposed to be a secret that Ma’Dere is living—without benefit of clergy—with Joe (Delroy Lindo), but this fiction only deceives her slightly wayward eldest son, Quentin (Idris Elba, American Gangster). Everyone else just plays along. Wandering musician Quentin has his own secret: He’s being followed by a pair of thug-lite thugs who want him to pony up a $25,000 gambling debt. Ma’Dere’s youngest, “Baby” (singer Chris Brown), harbors a secret desire to be a singer—something that wouldn’t sit well with Ma’Dere, since her ex-husband left her for such a career. Claude Whitfield (Columbus Short, Stomp the Yard) has two secrets: He’s AWOL, and he has a pregnant wife, Sandi (Jessica Stroup, The Hills Have Eyes II), whom he hasn’t introduced to the family. Why? Well, you see, she’s white (a distinct departure from the Tyler Perry playbook).
It’s all a little much, but the performances and Whitmore’s ability to keep it all moving at a good clip make it pleasing entertainment—most of the time. The film gives Brown a stunning musical number—letting him loose on a hot version of that old chestnut “Try a Little Tenderness”—but serves him less well with a gospel song late in the film.
The most lamentable aspect of the film comes in the subplot involving Lisa (Regina King, Year of the Dog) and her faithless husband, Malcolm (Laz Alonzo, Captivity). Here, Whitmore seems to actually be channeling the worst excesses of Tyler Perry in both the subplot’s clumsy melodrama and its depiction of Malcolm’s punishment for his transgressions. No doubt the image of the faithless husband flailing about a bathroom floor covered in baby oil while his wronged wife beats him with a belt will play well with viewers who cheered Perry’s scalding-grits-in-the-face revenge in Madea’s Family Reunion (2006), but is it really a message that ought to be sent out to the world?
Less dubious, but more perplexing, is the presence of Lupe Ontiveros (TV’s Desperate Housewives). Who is she? The maid? Or simply the token Hispanic who loiters around the Whitfield house for no apparent reason? And then there’s the dance-a-thon that ends the movie, which apparently has nothing to do with the story itself, since the long-gone Malcolm shows up to join the fun. Nonetheless, all in all, This Christmas is engaging enough to be several notches above the usual Christmas family fare. Rated PG-13 for comic sexual content and some violence.