A Loving Family Talks Turkey

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

In "This Christmas" all the children come home to roost -- and so do the chickens.

In other words, in this loving account of a holiday confab that spans generations, it turns out that each kid has issues, secrets, doubts. They lug this lugubrious cargo to the crucible of family, where, eventually, all is hashed, sorted, figured and ultimately dealt with. Then, of course, it starts again.

The Whitfields are by any standards prosperous, living in a Los Angeles Arts and Crafts mansion full of warm wood and Mission furniture. The source of their income is a dry-cleaning establishment, at which both parents still toil. They can look with pride on what their progeny has accomplished: Ivy League education for a few, healthy marriages for the others, grandchildren, a stint in the Marines and, for the youngest, still a baby, a sense of such a young man solidly on the same right track as the rest.

But like all families, such happiness is largely an illusion, based on a compact by which each member agrees to avoid certain subjects. "This Christmas" chronicles a holiday season when the subjects, at last, are not avoided.

The result is a big, gushy, emotional, secret-driven casserole, perhaps facile in some of its resolutions, but so full of good heart and love -- the real kind, which is scratchy, awkward, difficult to express, and doesn't conquer all but just some -- that the movie is difficult to resist.

"Ma Dear" Whitfield (Loretta Devine) is the matriarch of the clan, a wise, benevolent woman who understands that forgiveness is as important an ingredient at Christmas dinner as the turkey. Her bad boy, Quentin (Idris Elba of "The Wire"), is from her first marriage and will not accept her new partner, Joe (Delroy Lindo), as any kind of authority figure. Ma Dear's task -- Lord knows, the woman is a genius at multitasking! -- is to keep that relationship from exploding, and it is made more difficult by the fact that Quentin is on the run from loan sharks, who at one point show up at the house. Ma invites them to dinner!

Meanwhile, her married daughter Lisa (Regina King) resents her more successful, Harvard-educated sister Kelli (Sharon Leal), and Kelli, for her part, resents back, also because she sees through Lisa's womanizing husband, Malcome (Laz Alonso), another Ivy Leaguer. Meanwhile, her son Claude (Columbus Short) is AWOL from the Marine Corps but he has even more news: He's married and she (Jessica Stroup) is white. And even Michael (Chris Brown), better known as "Baby" for his unformed beauty, has a secret. And there are more brothers and sisters I haven't even named.

The film, written and directed by Preston A. Whitmore II, just keeps on happening. By that I mean, all these plots and crises and revelations unspool at a dizzying pace, some more satisfactorily than others. But the upshot is an extremely old-fashioned newfangled film. By that I mean it celebrates family in the old-fashioned sense, but in the newfangled way understands that deception, dislike and torment are part of the bargain, too. It doesn't idealize, which makes it ideal.

This Christmas (117 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for sexual innuendo and dramatic intensity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company