Friday, November 15, 2013

All They Want For Christmas: THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY

Even if you didn’t know Malcolm D. Lee’s The Best Man Holiday is a sequel to his 1999 ensemble comedy The Best Man, the sense of camaraderie and friendship in the cast would stand out. The first film was about a group of college friends reuniting, reconnecting, and reenacting old tensions and jealousies at the wedding of one of their own. This time, they’re reuniting for a Christmas celebration. One gets the sense that, though they’ve kept in touch, this is really the first time in 14 years that the whole group of them will be spending time together. They’ve got some catching up to do. Time allows Lee the opportunity to make a rare sequel that’s interested in how its characters have developed as people instead of simply recreating situations of the past.

Here, the bride (Monica Calhoun) and groom (Morris Chestnut) of the first film are happily married with a number of adorable small children. He’s become a star player for the New York Giants, a position that’s made him wealthy and famous. It’s they who invite the group to spend the holiday week at their mansion, remembering old times and making new memories. It’s a movie that leans on a sense of shared history that the entire ensemble sells wonderfully. The cast has relaxed comfort with each other, allowing their characters to find the easy rhythms, gentle needling, and still-simmering tensions that any group of old friends would have.

On the guest list for the holidays are a writer (Taye Diggs) and his pregnant wife (Sanaa Lathan), a TV news producer (Nia Long) and her new boyfriend (Eddie Cibrian), an education non-profit entrepreneur (Harold Perrineau) and his wife (Regina Hall), an unpredictable Real Housewife (Melissa De Sousa), and a rascal of a brand manager (Terrence Howard). They aren’t the struggling young adults they were all those years ago. Now, they have piles of bills, professional obstacles, children, and all manner of fully-grown obligations. Placing these characters in a big house and allow them to clash and connect in a variety of ways makes for good comedy and good drama. Lee’s screenplay is a silky smooth blend of gentle laughs, soft melodrama, and easy emotion, featuring nice moments big and small for each and every member of the cast.

As if aware that the holidays can be a hectic time, the movie figures it may as well reward Christmastime viewers with a little bit of everything. To suggest the overabundance of plot here, I’ll tell you that Chestnut is nearing retirement, and the rushing yards record, and Diggs, recently laid off from a gig teaching English and with a baby on the way, is desperate to sell a new book. Perrineau has just learned a big donor won’t be contributing his annual $2 million, an awful shortfall for a nonprofit. Long thinks her boyfriend’s Christmas gift to her just might be a proposal, De Sousa is starting to suspect her reality show stardom is interfering with her parenting skills or lack thereof, Lathan’s worried about her long-awaited pregnancy, and Howard just wants to crack jokes, drink, and slink away between rounds of pool and beers to sext in peace.

Add to that Lee’s commitment to tracing the still-lingering impact of events and revelations of the first film – past affairs, current hookups, and a certain semi-autobiographical novel that ruffled the ensemble’s feathers – and it’s clear the movie has a lot of ground to cover and subplots to juggle. The farcical setup gives way to enough meaningful life moments piling up in the back half that it could’ve powered a half-dozen Very Special Episodes of any given sitcom. It’s all too much, but somehow works anyway.

The supremely likable cast is full of talents who have aged into a greater sense of ease and comfort in their screen presences and with their scene partners. There’s affection radiating every which way on screen between characters and their performers that can’t help but drift out over the audience. It’s easy to enjoy their company. The conversations they have occasionally grow repetitive, but are always open to unexpected, sometimes R-rated, detours that even when they aren’t working are at least something. Even as the pleasant, undemanding, easygoing movie drifts into territory overwhelmingly overtly sentimental and tear jerking, the relaxed attitudes and easy banter only makes the sudden tough emotion crackle all the more.

There’s a striking moment in which Calhoun is struck by a sudden burst of emotion, moved beyond words, listening to two cute kids singing a Christmas hymn. The camera holds a medium shot as she leans closer, looms larger, her eyes wet, her lips forming the lyrics to softly sing along. In one little moment, the film communicates so much the importance of spending time with loved ones and the value of holiday tradition, it’s excusable that the overstuffed film rambles through so many big moments. It’s comically overflowing with incident by the end, but it doesn’t short change the characters or what they mean to each other.

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