Delroy Lindo as Joe
Idris Elba as Quentin Whitfield
Loretta Devine as Ma Dear
Chris Brown as Michael Baby' Whitfield
Columbus Short as Claude Whitfield
Regina King as Lisa Whitfield
Keith Robinson as Devon
Laz Alonso as Malcolme
Sharon Leal as Kelli Whitfield
Lauren London as Mel Whitfield
Adrienne L. Minor as Kristiana
Even without looking at a calendar you can always tell when December is approaching the Christmas lights go up in the department stores and the family Christmas films show up at the cineplex. This year's first offering is "This Christmas," very much in the vein of "The Family Stone" or "Home for the Holidays," as the Whitfield family convenes around the old family homestead in Los Angeles for the first time in four years, and brings all their problems both emotional and physical with them.
It's not overly difficult for even a casual moviegoer to figure out how everything is going to turn out. The real trick in these sorts of films is the strength of the ensemble and how well the filmmakers make an audience care about what's happening to them. "This Christmas" is a bit of a mixed bag.
Delroy Lindo and Loretta Devine make an excellent patriarch and matriarch, but "This Christmas" isn't really about them. Instead, it's about the struggles of their children, none of whom, unfortunately, are quite as capable or compelling. Lindo in particular is notable in his absence, and the film could have benefited more from his considerable gravitas and presence.
Idris Elba tries hard as the eldest wayward son to pick up the slack and give events some sort of center, but he's not entirely up to the task. The rest of the kids float in and out as the film tries to give each of them their time, but it never seems like enough of it, and that may be the film's, and its writer-director Preston A. Whitmore II's, biggest problem. "This Christmas" doesn't have a real center for all of its characters and plot threads to hang onto (beyond just the family getting together for Christmas). Usually it's the parents, but they're on the sidelines here and nothing solid is offered up in their place. There's Claude's (Columbus Short) secret girlfriend and Lisa's (Regina King) crumbling marriage, but none of the storylines are really given their due. The result isn't exactly a mess, but it is chaotically structured and difficult to find something to really hold on to and fully care about.
That being said, it's still often a very charming movie despite some uneven attempts at humor and the cast has enough chemistry to really sell the fact that they are a family, but it's hard not to think that a film about Joe and his relationship with the different family members would have been much more interesting than what we get.
As far as holiday family films go, "This Christmas" is a pretty solid entry in the genre. There's nothing in it that's actually bad or ill conceived, but there's nothing that makes it stand out from the pack, either.