This Christmas has pretty much everything you'd expect from a Christmas movie, except for snow. When the Whitfield clan reunites one December in California, there are Santa suits, turkey dinners, and a score so overstuffed with holiday staples that you get the feeling director Preston A. Whitmore II was overcompensating for the lack of wintry exteriors. And just like every other family in a Christmas movie, the Whitfields are a big, loving bunch who have many issues to work out in those three days of the year that they're all under one roof. That they're an African-American family does little to impact the movie's firm embrace of those conventions, aside from unsubtle reminders like stilted dinner table debates about the merits of historically black colleges versus Ivy League schools.
The matriarch of the family, Ma Dear (Loretta Devine), hasn't seen the father of her six children since he left decades ago to pursue a music career, but some of the kids still don't take kindly to her current beau, Joe (Delroy Lindo). The Whitfield offspring themselves have a whole cross section of crises: Quentin (The Wire's Idris Elba) is deep in debt and on the run from the menacing men he owes, Claude (Columbus Short) is an AWOL Marine with a wife he's kept secret from the family, Baby (teen R&B star Chris Brown) has singing ambitious that he dares not tell his mother, and Lisa (Regina King) is in denial about her sleazy philandering husband.
The two younger sisters, Kelli (Sharon Leal) and Mel (Lauren London), have no major issues to function as ciphers for, and as such they and their love interests, Gerald (Mekhi Phifer) and Devean (the quietly charismatic Keith Robinson, who doesn't get nearly enough screen time), end up the only fully believable and likable characters in the movie. More problematic is Devine, who plays Ma Dear as so benevolent and soft-spoken that the way her sons fearfully tiptoe around her, keeping secrets and avoiding confrontations to absurd extremes, ends up feeling like some sort of hereditary psychosis.
Of course, This Christmas ties up all of the Whitfields' tangled strands of conflict well before the credits. But some of the resolutions feel rushed to make room for at least 15 minutes of dance sequences and multiple showcases for Brown's nasally vocals, including a grueling rendition of "Try a Little Tenderness." Whitmore, who also wrote the script, shows major improvement from last year's mediocre basketball flick Crossover, aided in no small part by a bigger budget and a strong ensemble cast. But when some of the cast's best actors, including Elba and King, are given so little to work with, you wish Whitmore had cut back on the musical interludes in favor of further developing some of his many characters.