Reviewed by Ken Fox

Writer-director Preston A. Whitmore II (DOING HARD TIME) takes a swing at a Tyler Perry-style African-American family comedy and neatly outdoes the master himself. His second feature fast paced and engagingly acted, and while still filled with old-fashioned family values, it's a lot less preachy.

Christmas is coming and for the first time in years, the entire Whitman family has gathered at the L.A. home of formidable matriarch Shirley "Ma' Dere" Whitfield (Loretta Divine) for the holidays. Middle daughter Kelli (Sharon Leal) is back from New York where she's established herself as a savvy businesswoman, and youngest daughter Mel (Lauren London) is on break from Spellman College with boyfriend Devean (Keith Robinson), a Morehouse undergrad, in tow. Oldest daughter Lisa (Regina King), meanwhile, didn't have very far to travel. Unlike her college-bound sisters, Lisa stayed home to run the family dry cleaning business, raise two kids and cater to the needs of her domineering husband, Malcolm (Laz Alonso). Middle son Claude (Columbus Short), an active duty Marine, is home on a few days leave, while the baby of the family, Michael (Chris Brown), still lives with Ma' Dere. The real surprise, however, is the unexpected arrival of big brother Quentin (Idris Elba), who hasn't been home in over four years. Like their wayward father, Senior, Quentin left home to pursue a career as a jazzman, and he hasn't been back home in over four years; Senior, meanwhile, hasn't seen his wife or children in twenty. A tempest is brewing, and it's not just the storm front that expected over L.A. on Christmas Eve. Quentin is being pursued by a pair of bookies to whom he owes $25,000; Malcolm is pressuring Lisa to convince her siblings to sell the dry cleaners; tensions between Kelli and Lisa, who resents being the one left to care for the family business, are reaching a breaking point; Claude isn't really home on leave; and Michael wants to finally cut Ma' Dere's apron strings and attempt a career as a singer, even though he knows that after Senior and Quentin, his mother would never tolerate another heartbreaking musician family. And everyone seems to have a secret, including Ma' Dere. Unbeknownst to most of her children, she's been living with her long-time companion, Joe (Delroy Lindo).

There's really not much more here than you haven't seen in any of Perry's Madea movies, only it's more cohesive and one never gets the feeling that Whitmore is moving through a checklist of issues he'd like to cover before the end credits roll. And with heaping amounts of food, music, seasonal spirit and drama, drama, drama, there's no reason not to add this one to a shortlist of recent holiday favorites.