It’s that time of year again when studios try to unpack their cinematic Christmas gifts, and first out of the box is a diverse offering from Universal appropriately titled Almost Christmas. Even though we haven’t hit Thanksgiving yet, this surprisingly funny and engaging comedy from writer-director David E. Talbert and producer Will Packer (whose previous This Christmas gives him plenty of experience in this area) hits it marks more than it misses.

Deadline Review Badge Pete Hammond

This is one of those comedies that just swings for the fences and reaches them more than once, with some scenes so big on laughs I had a hard time hearing all the dialogue at the packed screening I attended. As I say in my video review above, the major strength of this movie is its cast led by Danny Glover as the patriarch of a Birmingham, AL family spending its first Christmas without its matriarch — Glover’s dear, departed wife and mother of their four grown kids, who are all brought back to the house for a five-day holiday celebration they must find a way to survive under one roof. Talbert is an award-winning playwright and you can see the theatricalness of it all as most of the film takes place in that house.

Kimberly Elise plays Cheryl, a smart, attractive daughter who seems to be on the right track despite a ne’er-do-well philanderer of a husband named Lonnie (JB Smoove) who has gone behind her back to have an affair with an unsuspecting grocery store clerk. Gabrielle Union is Rachel, the sister who never seems to be on the winning side of much and has carried on a lifelong sibling rivalry with Cheryl. A former classmate Malachi (Omar Epps) turns up to possibly offer some much-needed romance for her. Oldest son Christian is running for office, but not necessarily with the issues Dad thinks he should be pushing. His wife (Nicole Ari Parker) and kids crave more attention. Youngest son Evan (Jessie T. Usher) by 20 years, an accidental birth baby, has mother issues for sure.

Best of all though is Mo’nique, roaring through the film as Aunt May, a successful singer back from a tour offering her wacky cooking and sage advice for the family. She’s hilarious and really knows how to sock her lines home. The token white guy in the cast is the very funny John Michael Higgins, who plays Christian’s campaign manager. Lots of complications arise including Glover’s plan to sell the family home, much to objections of his kids.

Of course it is all fluffy stuff, with the requisite number of over-the-top gags (Smoove trying to put the Santa Claus display on the roof is a little much), but it makes up for excess with natural warmth mixed with some perfectly played comic situations — particularly a family dinner where Michelle confronts Lonnie about his extra-curricular activities. It’s entertaining stuff and a nice escape from some pretty weird times we are going through right now. Universal releases it this Friday and it should have no trouble playing right through the holidays.

Do you plan to see Almost Christmas? Let us know what you think.