The plot of the film can be described in two sentences: Three brothers and three sisters return to their mother's house for Christmas, and bring with them excessive baggage from their lives. They reunite, and work through the troubles in their lives.
In terms of story, there's not a lot else to say. However, it's really what the actors here bring to their characters and how they interact with their other family members on screen that make this movie work.
Loretta Devine plays the matriarch of the Whitfield family, affectionately known as Ma'Dere to her six children. Despite being a divorcée, she does well for herself as the owner of a laundromat. Of her six children, the only one who lives with her is Michael "Baby" Whitfield (Chris Brown), who does not want to tell Ma'Dere about his aspirations to be a singer.
The other five children not only live away from home, but all of them have a story. Quentin Jr. (Idris Elba, great as always) is a saxophone player whose life on the road has prevented him from coming home for the holidays for years. On top of him holding a grudge against Ma'Dere's minister boyfriend, deacon Joe Black (Delroy Lindo), for not being his father, Quentin Jr. also owes debts to bookies. Part of the reason he's home is to hide from them.
The whole story with Quentin Jr. could take up an entire movie, but the film does well balancing most of the other siblings out. The second eldest child, Lisa (the great Regina King), is a stay-at-home Mom who decided to raise a family instead of go to college. Her sister Kelli (the beautiful Sharon Leal) did go to college, and is successful and residing in New York City.
Her other sister Mel (Lauren London) is in college, and brings her boyfriend home for the holidays. The final brother Claude (Columbus Short), who I believe is fourth eldest, is in the Marines, but is holding back a few secrets, including but not limited to a bride with whom he eloped.
So with six children, there are a lot of stories. Most of them weave together very well, and the other children's reactions to each one is really believable. However, I feel as though Mel could have been cut entirely from the story. By the time the other five subplots really got going, Mel's bringing her boyfriend home from college seemed less interesting, plus her character got pushed right to the back anyway.
I really liked the interactions between Regina King and Sharon Leal. They look nothing alike, but both acted so well in scenes together that you really thought they were sisters. There was also a lot of believability between King and Idris Elba, especially when the dynamic is played out on how she stayed near the family while he drifted as far away as you can get.
I also thought the tension and eventual resolution between Elba and Lindo was pretty believable. Lindo's character is not a bad guy, but Elba as Quentin, who knew his estranged father the best, plays his uncertainty against the new man in the house well.
As a Christmas movie, it was unique in the way it took place in Los Angeles, the location of no other Christmas movies I know. It's sunny, the grass is green, and everyone is still wearing shorts & T-shirts in the film. Every other Christmas movie shows people bundled up in heavy jackets and winter hats while snow is on the ground. It was brave of the filmmakers to show Christmas in such a geographic location. After all, many people celebrate the holiday in places where it's not so cold outside.
As a family movie, the cast clicks together so well, making the touching parts more poignant and making the funny moments even more familiar. My favorite line comes after Lisa reveals the news that brother Claude is married. When Kelli says that it's not funny, Lisa replies, "No it isn't, but I'm going to keep drinking until it is!" Classic!
"This Christmas" will inevitably be misattributed to Tyler Perry, not only because it's a movie with a predominantly African-American cast. The facts that Lindo's character is a deacon, and Devine plays a church-going, God-fearing woman, a role into which she is frequently typecast, don't help much.
Thankfully, however, Lindo, as Joe Black, doesn't shove Bibles in people's faces. He's religious, but not a moral crusader. Devine's character is also refreshingly more rounded than those she played in movies like "Kingdom Come" (2001) and "Death At A Funeral" (2010), which was basically the same character. Her blaming music on her ex-husband's abandoning her seemed a bit too myopic. It would have been more so if she had actually said so. Instead, it's speculated by others, especially Quentin Jr., which makes it a bit more credible.
The Whitfield family here could have been white, Latino, Asian, or any other ethnic group, and it still would be relatable to anyone who comes home to family they see only a few times a year. "This Christmas" has a similar charm and universality to "A Christmas Story". It may be a holiday movie you find yourself wanting to return to again next year. The same may not be said about your family.