Mark Twain once wrote that author James Fenimore Cooper relied so heavily on the plot device of characters making noise by stepping on dry twigs, that if a character couldn’t find a dry twig, he’d have to go borrow one.
Writer-director Malcolm D. Lee has his own brand of dry twig in “The Best Man Holiday,” with his cast constantly walking in on exactly the wrong part of an overheard conversation, misreading something on someone else’s phone or tablet, or eavesdropping when they shouldn’t. The tally of significant coincidences and half-heard scraps of information on display here would exhaust even the snoopy staff of Downton Abbey.
Still, as its title suggests, “The Best Man Holiday” is a Christmas movie, the genre of film most likely to bypass critical faculties and nestle comfortably in our sentimentality zone. For some audiences, its mix of holiday cheer and pathos will make it a go-to movie in Decembers to come, but I found it to be a disappointing sequel to its charming-enough predecessor, 1999’s “The Best Man.”
The opening credits do a tidy job of bringing newbies up to speed: there’s novelist Harper (Taye Diggs), who has yet to publish a follow-up to his best-selling roman-à-clef about his college years; his chef wife Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), in the final stages of a pregnancy that both of them have long wanted; Harper’s close platonic pal Jordan (Nia Long), now a programming hot-shot at MSNBC with a preppy white boyfriend (Eddie Cibrian) who loves her “Olivia Pope vibe”; rakish Quentin (Terrence Howard), after years of job-hopping, has come into real money as a “brand manager”; Julian (Harold Perrineau) runs a tony private school with his ex-stripper wife Candy (Regina Hall); and Julian’s shrewish ex Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) has found the perfect place for her sense of drama and self-aggrandizement as one of the “Real Housewives of Westchester.”
This whole gaggle gets an invitation to spend Christmas with soon-to-retire pro footballer Lance (Morris Chestnut) and his wife Mia (Monica Calhoun); Lance is still wary of former BFF Harper because of Harper’s one-night stand with Mia in college (and over Harper having included it in his novel). But Mia insists that all of their closest friends gather at their sprawling home for the Yuletide.
And if you’ve watched enough Christmas movies — and I’ve seen my share — you know that impromptu holiday gatherings of friends and/or family means someone is terminally ill. (This is also one of those December-set movies where it clearly wasn’t cold during shooting — at some point there’s a reference to someone slipping on ice, even though all the lawns are still green.)
“The Best Man Holiday” keeps lobbing plot twists at us — Can Julian keep the school open after a major donor learns of Candy’s past? Will Harper desperately attempt to save his writing career by exploiting his relationship with Lance and offering to ghost-write Lance’s memoir? — but the movie works best when these talented actors get to just banter and goof on each other the way old friends do.
In both “Best Man” movies, Lee shoehorns in conversations about Jesus without much grace, but even the characters he treats like role models have no place being so didactic. Lance, for example, is constantly held up as this paragon of godly behavior, but he keeps stewing over Harper and Mia’s indiscretion all these years later. One subplot revolves around whether or not Lance will break the NFL rushing record, but he’s already a world-class grudge carrier.
Lee also never seems to notice that the women in both movies are held to a much higher standard over their past behavior than the men are. This isn’t presented as a failing of the male characters; it’s just something that the male writer-director does without apparently realizing it.
The ending (which involves, among other things, a layman delivering a baby that’s in the breech position — don’t try this at home) couldn’t be more contrived, but again, it’s a Christmas movie, and we all have our favorite flavors of seasonal schmaltz. The kind that “The Best Man Holiday” serves up was, for me at least, too hard to swallow.