A typical domestic dramedy, full of the usual holiday decorations, family tensions, and sentimental reconciliations, This Christmas offers one exceptional moment: Chris Brown performing “Try a Little Tenderness.” The scene is set in a club around the corner from his childhood home, where he still lives with his mother, Ma Dear (Loretta Devine). His older siblings — visiting for Christmas — have assembled at the club, seeking grown-up respites, chatting, bickering, and flirting with potential partners. They think “Baby”‘s out with one of his legion of girlfriends, and when they see him step on stage, murmuring that he’s nervous because it’s his “first time,” they’re startled, exchanging glances. But it hardly matters what anyone else is doing. The kid begins to sing, and he is brilliant.
He also brings Preston Whitmore’s conventional holiday movie to a halt, which is not entirely unwelcome, given the staleness of the plot around him. Some awkward, unnecessary cuts to reaction shots emphasize that Michael’s brothers and sisters are happily astonished — especially his oldest brother Quentin (Idris Elba), a jazz saxophonist who’s just come home after four years’ absence. The singing comprises a minor plot point — Michael has kept it secret to avoid a run-in with Ma Dear, who still mourns the departure of her musician husband many years before — but it’s only a drop in the film’s large and conventional bucket full of familial deceits and resentments.
Chief among these is the longstanding competition between eldest daughter Lisa (Regina King), who is married to the odious Malcolm (Laz Alonso), and Kelli (Sharon Leal), a jet-setting model/actress who has a vibrator in lieu of a boyfriend. Because Ma Dear wasn’t always able to parent effectively (being a single mom maintaining a lucrative business), Lisa took on a maternal connection to her siblings. Whether this shaped or confirmed her “bossy” inclination, the experience created resentments on all sides.
As is the usual course in such movies, both Kelli and Lisa have their chances to act out (separately and together), revealing rudimentary complexities in their character while also embodying tedious stereotypes. Lisa tires at last of cutting Malcolm’s dinner meat and treating him like the needy child her actual two children are not (they appear as props here, void of detail). Kelli’s possibilities are altered as well, when she re-meets a classmate at the club where Michael sings: Gerald (executive producer Mekhi Phifer) makes no secret of his long-standing crush on her, though she never noticed him, and Kelli has to rethink her policy of no-strings one-night stands. Kelli’s good fortune allows her the necessary generosity to support Lisa when she finally confronts her cheatin’-hearted man (his scheme to make money off Ma Dear’s dry cleaning business is only the start of Malcolm’s maliciousness) — but not before the girls indulge in a tedious knock-down in the mud and rain on the front lawn.
While it’s suggested that Lisa and Kelli’s enduring rivalry is born of their parallel difficult relationships with Ma Dear, the movie focuses more closely on a mother-son dynamic. Ma Dear loves and rages at her oldest boy Quentin, seeing his father in him. For his part, Quentin, the musician, plainly emulates his long-gone dad (and oddly, believes that dad will someday return). He displaces his anger at Ma Dear (whom he blames for not being loyal to his dad) onto her “new” longtime boyfriend Joe (executive producer Delroy Lindo), a completely decent guy who goes so far as to pretend he’s not living in the house so as not to upset big baby Quentin. The younger children manage their restlessness and frustration by seeking partners who might jumpstart fights with mom. Perpetual undergraduate Mel (Lauren London) brings home her new boyfriend, fellow pre-law student Devin (Keith Robinson) (surrounded by her tall brothers, he stumbles on his self-introduction, leading them to tease him by way of inviting him into the fray: “She did always like ’em articulate”). Blandest brother Claude (Columbus Short), a Marine, is hiding his own surprise, as afraid to tell Ma Dear about his relationship with a white woman, Sandi (Jessica Stroup), as Michael is to spill the beans about his singing.
All this suggests the Whitfield kids have grown up trying to protect their mother from surprises or even vaguely bad news. While the film makes their grappling with each other and her look mostly comic, occasional tensions erupt into full-on fights (Lisa and Kelli go at it on the front lawn, Lisa finds a particularly physical way to punish Malcolm). Broad and farcical, such moments are less engaging than the film’s subtler moments, and mostly just repeat the home-for-the-holidays movie formula. This formula is exactly why Chris Brown’s “Try A Little Tenderness” is so effectively poignant, understated, and resounding, so unlike anything else in the film (that includes his second performance, the less affecting, more conventionally churchified “This Christmas”). You’ve seen the scene before, in a movie like this one, and you’ve heard the much-covered song before, but Brown makes it feel new again.