Review: The Best Man Holiday
Note: This article was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
Hark! The first Christmas-themed film of the year (aside from Iron Man 3) is now out in theaters, and it doesn’t feel like a holiday movie at all.
Writer-director Malcolm D. Lee’s feature debut The Best Man hit theaters in 1999 and became a sleeper hit, grossing four times its modest budget and rocketing its cast—including Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut and Terrence Howard—to stardom. Now they’re all back for The Best Man Holiday, a Christmas movie with far more on its mind than gifts and eggnog that succeeds despite its flaws due to Lee’s willingness to take risks.
While the film is being marketed as a comedy—and for most of its runtime, it’s a pretty effective one—there’s a streak of seriousness that sets it apart from other movies in this vein. There are no screwball antics involving trees or decorations to be found; the titular holiday is entirely a McGuffin, only acting as an excuse for all these characters to come together after more than a decade apart. Lee understands that Christmas is less about the signs of the season and more about the coming together of friends and family, with all the complications that can entail.
There’s an air of daring about the proceedings, as the film balances elements of several subgenres—bromance, romcom, midlife crisis and family tragedy, to name a few—and nearly a dozen characters throughout its 129-minute runtime. Even the opening credits are airy yet efficient, providing quick animated introductions to the characters and where they are now for viewers who haven’t seen (or just can’t remember) the first film. Harper (Taye Diggs) is a bestselling author in need of a new hit. Lance (Morris Chestnut) is an all-star NFL athlete days away from breaking a rushing record. Julian (Harold Perrineau) runs an educational center in desperate need of funds. Quentin—Terrence Howard’s breakout role—is still up to his womanizing ways. And those are just the male characters; they all have wives, girlfriends, or exes that are prominent characters too!
The first half of the film moves casually but intentionally, introducing all the major characters and their problems before putting them together in one house for the holidays. This is when the movie shines, allowing its cast room to breathe and banter: these feel like real people, not constructs designed to move along the plot. The relationships function as story, leaving most of the “stuff that happens” until the third act. With so many characters in one place, the only obstacles that need to be overcome are those that arise from simple human interaction.
All of the primary male characters (excluding Quentin, who mainly serves as comic relief) are given multiple problems to deal with, from a friendship on the rocks to the discovery of a loved one’s sexual secret, and they all feel equally weighty. Lee’s script wisely acknowledges that while people have certain constants they strive for—career, romance, pride and friendship—it’s rare that all three are in harmony. Success at a job might hide marital strife, or financial woes could be a powerful blow to self-esteem. None of the characters in The Best Man Holiday are truly spiteful or capricious, they’re simply trying to keep their issues from getting tangled with those of their friends, which is easier said than done.
Unfortunately, the film gives its male characters so many conflicts that the women are shoved to the background, reacting to what’s around them rather than becoming three-dimensional characters themselves. The second act tries to remedy this by having them cooperate and collude on behalf of their significant others, but these developments feel petty and inconsequential. Even Jordan (Nia Long), Harper’s single friend, has an arc that revolves entirely around a boyfriend, and I’m still not sure what purpose Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) serves other than to irritate everyone else. Things get so overstuffed that it’s occasionally difficult to keep track of who knows what about which subplot, and the film feels like it’s spinning its wheels until its emotional climax.
That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing—movies that feel directionless can still be enjoyable with a charismatic cast—if that climax wasn’t so beholden to rote melodrama. The Best Man Holiday doesn’t just tap into the usual tropes of broken friendships and relationship crises, it tackles the heaviest subject of all when one character reveals she’s terminally ill. All of the other conflicts suddenly seem slight by comparison, and a pall of dread hangs over everything. It’s refreshing to see a comedy about friendship that’s willing to explore heavy themes of mortality and faith amidst its exploration of lies and rivalry, but the film handles it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, dragging out cliché after cliché in an effort to be as dramatic as possible. This is a tearjerker, but mainly because of the sheer amount of corny sentimentality on display rather than because the emotions flow organically from the execution. By the time this development reaches a conclusion, the mood isn’t just depressing, it’s obnoxious.
That’s when Lee makes another fatal mistake. The final scene of the film is a madcap attempt to leave things on a humorous note rather than one of serious and meaningful contemplation, and the result is the worst tonal whiplash I’ve witnessed all year. It’s isn’t just desperate, it’s completely implausible, ignoring the established character beats in favor of forced frivolity, like something ripped from another film or a previous draft. The final moments are stunningly remiss, and just another sign that The Best Man Holiday bit off more than it could chew.
There are far worse things for a film to be than overly ambitious, however. There’s a casual assuredness to the first half that makes the later shortcomings far more forgivable, and it helps that the cast is so amicable and charismatic. Many of these actors are now recognizable stars if not outright sex symbols, and Lee allows the audience to luxuriate in their success before ripping away the sheen. It’s a bold move that doesn’t quite pay off, but despite these flaws, The Best Man Holiday is better because of it.