Review: "This Christmas" among best of the holiday lot 

With a wicked blend of drama, adventure, and in the end genuine joy, "This Christmas" brings more spirit, both yuletide and otherwise, than any other seasonal offering this year.

When the grown children of Ma' Dere (Loretta Devine) return to the nest for the holidays, even those traveling light bring plenty of baggage. These Pandora’s boxes spill contaminates from failing marriages to gambling debts, visiting themselves like plagues upon the festivities, inspiring punches, hugs and in the end an unambiguous testament to family.

The siblings, three girls and three boys, all vigorously opinionated and pugnacious, are not especially unique in and of themselves, but collectively their African-American roots bring a distinct twist.

Living contemporary urban lives, these kinfolk resemble neither the caricatures of Tyler Perry nor Bill Cosby’s tight-assed Huxtables. New millennium ethnics with Ivy League educations and a thirst for success, the Whitfields nonetheless retain the best of their heritage, which to Ma Dere’s frustration includes a love for making music.

And it’s the music that makes "This Christmas" more than just another off-the-shelf tale of holiday family squabbles. The professional melody making that has brought the matriarch so muchpain, brings us inspiration -- the songs in the story, as well as the soundtrack, providing the bedrock upon which the screenplay is allowed to rift.

Ma Dear’s prejudice stems from the departure of her husband, her children’s father, a saxophone player who chose a life on the road as opposed to the sedentary existence of say an accountant. Further skewing her measure of the profession is prodigal son Quentin (Idris Elba), a jazz player like his father, come home for the first time in several years.

Giving each of the siblings their own Dr. Phil subplot, the real star of this ensemble offering is the moviemaker, writer and director Preston A. Whitmore ll. Having honed his chops on low budget features with marginally commercial themes, the resourceful Whitmore brings an unusual twist of suspense and action to this modern urban saga, which could easily have been ho-hum as ho, ho, ho.

Whitmore’s script excels at sending his myriad characters into a mild and amusing chaos, yet keeping us clear on what has them at a loss.

There’s the Harvard daughter Kelli (Sharon Leal) turned businesswoman and the eldest daughter Lisa (Regina King) turned doormat for her husband (Laz Alonso).

Middle brother Claude (Columbus Short) arrives, his recent marriage unrevealed, leaving his white wife in a hotel while he unnecessarily frets about delivering news that raises more eyebrows than anxiety. A victim of his own undoing, he ends up in the brig (somebody in lockup is a Whitmore signature).

Younger sister Mel (Lauren London) is just looking for a private place to "snuggle" with her boyfriend, whom she brought in obedient tow from college.

Baby brother Michael (Chris Brown), still living at home, has a pleasant surprise for everyone except his mother.

Quentin hits the doorstep just one step ahead of his bookie’s armed collectors.

Meanwhile Ma’ Dere is tryingto seat a new man (Delroy Lindo) at the head of the table.

As siblings, they know where each other’s buttons are and it doesn’t take long before everyone’s get pushed. Throw in the paid "muscle" pursuing Quentin, "old friends" who show up just in time to join everyone for Christmas dinner, Lisa’s husband scheming to relieve Ma’ Dere of her hard earned nest-egg, and Claude’s wife who much as she has been embraced must be going though culture shock, and you’ve got a screenplay.

Out-laws, in-laws, and blood relatives—confrontations leavened with humanity. Every provocation, attack, or insult is somewhere matched by compassion, forgiveness or love.

Rare scripting. Whitmore, having paid his dues, is on to something here and hopefully the box office responds.

That said, there exists one glaring oversight. With the story resolved, the actors, in encore, form a soul tunnel, where two lines of dancers face each other with a path down the middle through which each takes a turn displaying their "moves", unconditionally encouraged by the others. As much as a dance, it’s a reinforcement of family and community. The only character missing not only from this, but the family picture used for the movie’s promo is Claude’s white wife who has become a cherished member of the family.

Her exclusion is not a small oversight. The success of this movie, commercial and artistically, lies in its ability to appeal to a crossover market. In an offering, underscored by acceptance and understanding, her marginalization stands at very least as a curiosity.

One last note: even if you wait for this to come out on DVD, get the soundtrack now, before Christmas.

Grade: B

Lester Gray reviews movies for Examiner.com. Read reviews by all of Examiner's critics.

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