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Family-reunion comedy among the season’s gifts

Secrets run in the Whitfield family. They also walk, pratfall and crash into the L.A. River.

Secrets run in the Whitfield family. They also walk, pratfall and crash into the L.A. River.

This Christmas, Ma'Dere (Loretta Devine), matriarch of the clan, looks forward to seeing all six of her broods together for the first time in years. Before they arrive, though, she asks Joe (Delroy Lindo), her live-in love, to move his clothes into the garage so she can maintain the fiction that he is just a friend.

A holiday evergreen set in the Los Angeles neighborhood of West Adams, This Christmas is a family reunion comedy with appealing, if familiar, characters and a soundtrack upbeat as its story.

Writer/director Preston Whitmore II takes the structure of George Kaufman's and Moss Hart's You Can't Take It With You, the one about those eccentric Vanderhofs, peopling it with a contemporary urban family. Instead of the black sheep owing money to the IRS, here he owes to bookies.

It's been years but Ma'Dere has not yet gotten over the defection of her husband, Quentin Sr., a musician whose primary relationship was with his sax.

Which is why Quentin Jr. (Idris Elba), the eldest of the kids, and Baby (super-talented Chris Brown), the youngest, keep their musical skills in the closet.

Beware: The Whitfield closet is very crowded. Open the door and all kinds of secrets tumble out.

Brother Claude, a Marine, has a relationship he's afraid to share with his family. Sister Mel (Lauren London) is the opposite, auditioning yet another beau for family approval.

And then there's the battling sisters, Lisa (Regina King), who is married and a mom, and Kelli (Sharon Leal), a single professional, each of whom regards the other as a reproach to her personhood.

In a movie that veers from slapstick to sober and back again, Whitmore juggles seven storylines and shifting moods with aplomb.

Some of the conflicts resolve farcically (who knew baby oil was a lethal weapon?); others dramatically (who knew the deacon was a streetfighter?). The dramatic arcs of the Whitfield men are balanced by the broadly comic arcs of the Whitfield women, with Ma'Dere as the stoic fulcrum.

There are so many characters in this seesawing affair that no single performance dominates. But Lindo's quiet power is really something, as is Brown's musical force. At the multiplex where so many holiday movies feel regifted, This Christmas is a gift.