Strong cast elevates routine home-for-holidays picture

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Tuesday, November 20, 2007 7:37pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

The home-for-the-holidays movie gets an African-American twist in “This Christmas,” a hokey but well-acted picture.

This is the best film yet from director Preston A. Whitmore II (“Fled”), who apparently based some of the action on his own family. He’s stuck close to formula: The movie takes place over a few days at Christmas with the Whitfield family, which endures the usual bumps and bruises.

Everybody gathers at the house of Ma’Dere (eternally sassy Loretta Devine), the matriarch who’s been living for years with calm Joe (Delroy Lindo). Still, the specter of her long-departed husband, a musician who bolted for Europe years ago, hangs over the household.

For instance, oldest son Quentin (Idris Elba) is a jazz musician, visiting home for the first time in years. He’s in trouble with loan sharks. Youngest son Baby (singer Chris Brown) is afraid to tell Ma’Dere he wants to be an R&B singer, for fear she’ll think he’s following in his father’s footsteps.

But there’s much more melodrama in store: infidelity, flirtations, money arguments. Whitmore makes sure every character — and there are lots of them — has a problem. The wisdom tends to be boilerplate for this kind of deal: “Career won’t keep you warm at night,” Ma’Dere soberly intones.

The director does one thing skillfully, which is to establish that keeping secrets in a family is always worse than letting the truth out. Everybody here has a secret that is messing them up in some way.

But the film’s biggest asset is the acting. Whether it’s the rock-solid presence of Lindo or Mekhi Phifer (as a fireman romancing a Whitfield sister) or the quick reactions of the always-sharp Regina King, there’s always somebody to watch.

The obligatory fall guy is Laz Alonzo, as King’s husband, a corporate sell-out. Musically speaking, Chris Brown stops the show with a performance of “Try a Little Tenderness” that almost out-vibratos Mariah Carey.

Taking top honors is Idris Elba (of TV’s “The Wire”), who really looks as though he stepped out of a classic jazz combo circa 1969. This guy is going to win a lot of awards by the time his career is done.

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