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Uneven 'Almost Christmas' marks a rocky start to the holiday season
Romany Malco stars as Christian in "Almost Christmas." - photo by Josh Terry
ALMOST CHRISTMAS 2 stars Danny Glover, Omar Epps, Gabrielle Union, Mo'Nique, Kimberly Elise; PG-13 (suggestive material, drug content and language); in general release

"Almost Christmas" is almost a Christmas movie. It takes place in December, and its ensemble cast does attend church at one point albeit reluctantly but aside from a few decorative lights and a scene involving an electric rooftop Santa, "Almost Christmas" doesn't have much in terms of Yuletide flavor.

"Almost Christmas" also follows that oft-tried but rarely true formula of the ensemble comedy, whereby a half-dozen storylines are crammed into a single feature film in the hopes of covering as much thematic ground as possible. We recently saw this in 2015's "Love the Coopers," and if there's any good news here, "Almost Christmas" is not nearly as aggravating as that film.

In this case, the myriad stories center around a patriarch named Walter (Danny Glover), who has been living alone in his Alabama home since the death of his wife, Grace, earlier in the year. This will be the family's first Christmas without Grace (no pun intended), and Walter is just hoping they can get along for a few days.

Getting along will be a challenge for Walter's children, who are packing enough baggage to fill Santa's bag on their own. Divorced single mother Rachel (Gabrielle Union) is on bad terms with her older sister Cheryl (Kimberly Elise), and trying to avoid her ex-high school flame Malachi (Omar Epps), who still lives next door. Cheryl's husband Lonnie (J.B. Smoove) is more than happy to entertain the attention of other women, especially when they recognize his brief stint with the Seattle Supersonics back in the '90s. Son Christian's (Romany Malco) congressional campaign is putting him at odds with the homeless shelter where his mother used to volunteer before her death, and the baby of the family college football star Evan (Jesse T. Usher) is addicted to painkillers.

With Grace gone, Walter's sister-in-law May (Mo'Nique) is doing her best to take on the matriarchal role. But her attempts to cook all the exotic recipes she picked up over decades of touring as a back-up singer for the likes of Ike and Tina Turner, Mick Jagger and Little Richard leave the family desperate for Grace's tried-and-true recipes.

With all that in place, director David E. Talbert packs an exhaustive 112 minutes of running time pin-balling back and forth from storyline to storyline, veering "Almost Christmas" through scenes of cornball slapstick, touching drama and most everything in between. Most of the effort is well-intended, but all of the dysfunctional parts struggle to create a whole anything near as fluid as the opening sequence, which ushers the audience through four decades of family building flashbacks to land us at Christmas 2016.

Still, determined viewers will be able to enjoy "Almost Christmas" in bits and pieces. Sharp viewers will recognize Gladys Knight in a brief supporting role at the homeless shelter, and Mo'Nique provides an energetic if profane turn as Aunt May. The film's content is definitely in PG-13 territory, but that may be just as well, since there's little if anything here a younger child would enjoy.

Somewhere in the middle of Almost Christmas, there is a message about forgiveness and family togetherness. But as a Christmas movie, it will struggle to make anyone's all-time list of holiday favorites.

Almost Christmas is rated PG-13 for suggestive material, drug content and language; running time: 112 minutes.
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