Oh, to be a child at Christmastime! Er, unless your dad is a self-involved pseudo-rap star and your mom is struggling to make emotional and financial ends meet. In that case, according to The Perfect Holiday, negotiations of time and energy get a little complicated, with potential disappointments lurking around every corner. Under such circumstances, the film submits, the “perfect holiday” can seem a remote fantasy.
Still, the hope for perfection persists, particularly embodied here by little Emily (Khail Bryant). In an effort to smooth over tensions at home, she asks for a special present when she visits Santaland at the mall. Having overheard her mother, Nancy (Gabrielle Union), wish for a man to pay her a compliment, no strings attached, Emily plops herself down on Santa’s lap and asks for exactly that.
It happens that this Santa is an aspiring songwriter named Benjamin (Morris Chestnut). Wanting to please the adorable child and meet the beautiful mom she points out, he devises to deliver the “gift.” With encouragement from his best friend and mall elf Jamal (Faizon Love), Benjamin approaches Nancy at the dry cleaners, declares her “very attractive,” then disappears. This leaves her with the impression that she has indeed received the unbidden and unencumbered compliment she so wanted. If only. As must happen in such generic exercises, Nancy begins to imagine this seeming stranger is a dreamboat, confiding her secret lust to her requisite girlfriends — Robin (Jill Marie Jones) and Brenda (Rachel True) — even as Benjamin is scrambling to occasion another “accidental” encounter.
While the couple-to-be thus contrives, Lance Rivera’s movie supplements with a couple of other subplots. One concerns Nancy’s kids and their ne’er-do-well daddy, the predictably blingy and self-loving J-Jizzy (Charlie Murphy). Embodying every sort of bad-dad cliché, J-Jizzy breaks dates and uses his children only for photo ops (for instance, his “Rockin’ Christmas” bash, where he proceeds to lose track of them amid the booty-girls). “My name may be on a lot of things,” he tells a TV interviewer, “But my heart is in my music.” Right. Luckily, his cartoonish manager, Delicious (Katt Williams), is willing to pick up pieces while he endeavors to write a best-selling Christmas-gangsta rhyme for his new album.
Hoping against hope that his father will return, 10-year-old John-John (Malik Hammond) resents Benjamin, refusing to accept him even though they share an interest in music (this point underlined in one of those formulaic scenes where they bond briefly, playing some keyboard tunes and enjoying each other until John-John remembers himself and pulls back to condemn Benjamin’s clumsy interloping). A middle child, Mikey (Jeremy Gumbs) serves little purpose until film’s end, when his physical endangerment precedes a blandly heroic turn by the guilt-ridden Benjamin, who strangely turns blander during each moment he’s on screen. (“I’m the big green leafy vegetable of boyfriends,” he informs Nancy, who may or may not appreciate this.)
Part “family movie” and part “romantic comedy,” Perfect Holiday divides its energies unevenly, leaning too heavily on the adults acting like children. As Nancy and Benjamin discuss their hearts’ desires and self-images, the kids are left more often than not, to figure things out for themselves. When at last Benjamin confesses his inadvertent scam to John-John, the boy is rightly protective of his mother, demanding to know how a so-called adult could let his lies careen so far out of control. While it’s heartening to see someone with a moral compass, you might wonder why John-John, despite his occasional age-appropriate pouting, is the most mature character on the scene.
Among the least mature are two seasonal “spirits,” kibitzing at the margins of the story proper. Mother Christmas (Queen Latifah) wants more than anything for the romance to blossom, while Bah Humbug (Terrence Howard) makes trouble, complaining incessantly and trying to thwart the happy ending. Completely unnecessary, the role does allow Latifah to mark the film as her own, yet another second-rate Flavor Unit production (see also: The Cookout and Beauty Shop), at least providing employment for talented friends like erstwhile music video director Rivera.
Howard’s participation might be chalked up to the fact that he’s repped by Flavor Unit Entertainment, yet another step in Latifah’s world domination. Beyond her Pizza Hut and Cover Girl contracts, the company has made clear that she has a business plan and an interest in representations, of all forms. Now, if only the projects can be less tired and more inspired.