Sometimes the best respites from annoying family get-togethers around holiday time are movies about annoying family get-togethers around holiday time. In writer-director David E. Talbert’s rambling but rambunctiously entertaining Almost Christmas, Danny Glover stars as Walter, a recently widowed patriarch welcoming his squabbling brood back to their Birmingham, Ala., homestead—it’s the siblings’ first holiday gathering since their mother died, and it’s clear that no one has quite worked through his or her grief. The gang includes Gabrielle Union’s Rachel, a recent divorcee who’s rankled by the judgmental gaze of her sister, Cheryl (Kimberly Elise)—though it turns out that Cheryl’s marriage isn’t going so well, either. (Her husband is a hapless but goofily charming pro basketball player played by J.B. Smoove, whose faux-innocent “Who, me?” demeanor is funny by itself.) Another sibling, Romany Malco’s Christian, is a stressed-out aspiring congressman who’s tempted to betray the ideals of his late mother, who’d devoted much of her life to keeping a local homeless shelter going.
You’ve seen most of this before, but that’s pretty much the point: The familiarity of the setup means the actors can just knuckle down and do their thing, and their energy keeps the movie rolling at a clip. At one point Glover’s Walter tries to re-create his late wife’s sweet-potato pie without a recipe. You can practically taste the disastrous results before he breaks that first egg, but watching Glover go through the motions—and seeing him peel back layers of frustration and good-humored self-deprecation as he messes up—is its own modest pleasure. And glowering down upon this tribe’s criss-crossing currents of chaos, decked out in an array of divalicious wigs and floaty metallic caftans, is Aunt May, the late matriarch’s sister, a backup singer who has traveled the world with all the greats. She’s played by Mo’Nique, who glides through the movie as if it were a Sunday saunter in the park. When a young local hunk tries to flirt with her, she waves him off like a gnat: “I’ve got vibrators older than that child.” Almost Christmas is rated PG-13, and Aunt May is, too—though if you asked her, she’d probably say that the PG stands for Pretty Great.