This African-American variation on The Family Stone subscribes to the notion that Christmas is not really the most wonderful time of the year when it comes to visiting relatives. So don’t expect much peace and goodwill to be found when the Whitfields gather together for their first Christmas dinner in four years. The six siblings who spend the holidays at the California home of family matriarch Ma’Dere (Loretta Devine) all harbor a dark secret or a hidden agenda. Take Quentin (Idris Elba). He owes two very pissed-off bookies $25 000. Homemaker Lisa (Regina King) wants to sell the family business to fund her unappreciative husband’s (Laz Alonso) latest get-rich-quick scheme. Kelli (Sharon Leal) doesn’t want Lisa’s no-good husband getting his grubby paws on Ma’Dere’s hard-earned money. But what does this young professional want that Lisa has? A family of course. Claude (Columbus Short) spends his alone time on the phone to a mystery woman he’s nervous about introducing to Ma’Dere. Mel (Lauren London) doesn’t care what her family thinks of her boyfriend—she just wants to make out with him without being caught. Michael (Chris Brown) nicknamed Baby for obvious reasons fears that following his dream to be singer will break Ma’Dere’s heart. She hasn’t gotten over her ex-husband leaving her to pursue his music career. While it’s down to Ma’Dere to keep the peace she has own her issues to resolve regarding Quentin and her loving relationship with longtime boyfriend Joe (Delroy Lindo). Yes Brown sings. Not once but twice as we treated to his Michael Jackson-flavored R&B. Don’t be surprised if his rendition of “This Christmas” ends up on holiday compilation CDs for decades to come. Brown‘s a natural on stage but he relies too much on his megawatt smile and undeniable charm when trying to hold his own against old pros Devine and Lindo. Still that’s probably more than enough for the adoring fans who would love to “Kiss Kiss” Chris Brown under the mistletoe. Luckily This Christmas doesn’t lean too heavily on Brown for director Preston A. Whitmore II‘s assembled a terrific cast of African-American actors Tyler Perry could only hope to snag for one of his trademark morality plays. Building upon his breakthrough role as a devoted father in Perry‘s Daddy’s Little Girls Elba shows he’s just as effective playing a imperfect son unable or unwilling to connect with his mother. He also proves to be a worthy adversary to Lindo who carries himself with quiet dignity during every family crisis. Devine is the very personification of motherly love—she never comes across as a shrill stereotype like Perry‘s no-nonsense Madea. There’s plenty of fun to be had watching tough cookies King and Leal lock horns. And sparks fly between Leal and ER‘s Mekhi Phifer whose noble firefighter makes Kelli quickly forget she’s all business and no pleasure. Saddled with a subplot with no significant payoff Short does the best he can under the worst of circumstances. Thanks to Whitmore‘s light but assured touch This Christmas makes a silky smooth transition from comedy to drama. Whitmore maintains the perfect balance between the humor and tension that makes dysfunctional family relationships both compelling and difficult to watch. He never lets things get too outrageously nasty; you don’t believe for a minute that the Whitfields—a very likable bunch to boot—won’t overcome their differences before Christmas dinner is served. When they do kiss and make up This Christmas thankfully doesn’t get overly gushy. But Whitmore does take refuge in the obvious at times. You just know someone’s dying to crack a “ho ho ho” joke about Kelli being wooed by a Santa-outfitted Phifer or that Lisa’s going to go all Waiting to Exhale on her husband’s Cadillac Escalade. At least the inevitable family dance off is a blast to watch. Too bad Whitmore the screenwriter also burdens Whitmore the director with too many characters to pay attention to and too many loose ends to tie up. Really who would miss Mel? And why is Claude so worried how his family will greet the love of his life when this purportedly taboo romance raises nothing more than eyebrows when all is revealed? Still for all its faults This Christmas remains a warm and engaging examination of family dynamics at a time of great stress and celebration. There are worse ways of spending the holidays than sitting down to Christmas dinner—or boogieing down to vintage Kool & the Gang—with the warring Whitfields.