Review: This Christmas

Well, it's arrived. After four Tyler Perry feature films, we finally have the very first official knockoff with "This Christmas" (IMDb listing). Of course, with such an honor comes a delicious twist: it's miles ahead of anything Perry could muster.

It's the Christmas season for the Whitfields: a time for joy, family, and endless problems. For Ma'Dere (Loretta Devine), her relationship with Joe (Delroy Lindo) remains a secret shame she tries to keep away from her troubled son Quentin (Idris Elba); Lisa (Regina King) is dealing with a cheating spouse; Kelli (Sharon Leal) is looking for a man, hoping a one-night-stand will lead to love; Baby (R&B superstar of the week, Chris Brown), the youngest of the clan, has aspirations to be a singer; and Claude (Columbus Short) is a military officer on leave with secrets that will come back to haunt him.

There's a whole lot of heart inside "This Christmas" that makes it easy to forgive its cash-in intentions. Written and directed by Preston Whitmore ("Crossover"), "Christmas" is blessed with copious amounts of charm and spirit, if not story. It's an experience defined by the strength of the cast, who rise above the derivative nature of the picture to fashion something if not entirely fresh, at least it's entertaining and uplifting where it counts.

"Christmas" is best when it settles into the family dynamic. The cast plays off each other extremely well, selling the history of the Whitfields without overcooking the sibling rivalry bitterness. Whitmore is settling on broad story arcs of personal adversity, but the execution has a pleasing consistency, approaching sentiment without the syrup and sermonizing without the exposition. "Christmas" is hardly a flying success, but where Perry gets caught up in his own ego and limited directorial aptitude, Whitmore provides a smoother film, executing holiday headaches with a sense of grace.

"Christmas" does a triumphant job fighting off the oozing Perry comparisons for most of the film, but it can only be held back for so long. In the final act of the picture, a potent Perry staple steps forwards: violence as means of revenge. Of course, we're not talking hot grits poured over genitals, merely a baby-oil-slicked floor and a belt whipping. It's a shamelessly audience-baiting moment in a film with precious little of it, and while I understand Whitmore's desire to goose his audience a tad, I'm sorry to see this intelligent picture sink so low to accomplish this task.

Frighteningly overlong at two hours (that includes a strange, indulgent five-minute living room dance sequence that closes the film), "Christmas" would've been much better served by a shot of brevity. Still, this is a successful motion picture, exhibiting the Whitfields and their predicaments without pouring on the melodrama, allowing the performers room to interact and shape their performances in what amounts to a pleasing holiday diversion.

Filmfodder Grade: B