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Movie Review

"A happy family all wrapped up with each other."

That, according to The Perfect Holiday's occasional onscreen narrator, Queen Latifah, is what Christmastime should be about. But for Nancy, a single mother of three and the ex-wife of self-absorbed rap mogul J-Jizzy (a mash-up caricature of P. Diddy and Jay-Z), that vision of Christmas lacks a key component. Each day, by the time this devoted mom takes care of three precocious young kiddos—John-John, Emily and Mikey—there's nothing left for her. Thus she's relinquished her own Christmas wish: a decent man.

That situation changes when little Emily overhears Mom tell gal pals Brenda and Robin that all she really wants for Christmas is a man's compliment. So when Emily clambers up onto Santa's lap at the mall, she delivers Mom's wish instead of her own. Santa, aka Ben Armstrong, glances up to see who Emily is talking about, and he's spontaneously compelled by Nancy's beauty to make that wish come true.

Love blossoms, of course, nurtured by Emily's helpful habit of returning to the mall to pass on to Santa her mom's latest thoughts about the relationship. But Ben's reticence to divulge his real occupation to Nancy proves an impediment. As does John-John's refusal to accept Mom's new man as a possible replacement for his irresponsible celebrity father. And then there's the complicating fact that J-Jizzy has stumbled across Ben's Christmas demo and wants to record it.

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Positive Elements

With Queen Latifah's periodic plot nudges here and there, the characters in this formulaic-yet-sweet Christmas love story gradually overcome their own foibles and sitcom-esque hurdles. Latifah informs us that Nancy "frets" over her three kids in her role as "teacher, chauffeur, cook, cop." Throughout the film, Nancy engages lovingly, talking with them, asking questions, cooking, reading stories and trying to help them deal with their father's shortcomings. Her attitude is summed up by her statement, "[There's] nothing more precious to me than my three beautiful children." Of the three, Emily is the most unselfish, which is evident when she sets aside her own Christmas wish list in order to communicate her mom's desires to Santa.

The movie also underscores the importance of fathers. John-John desperately longs for his parents to get back together, even though J-Jizzy's irresponsible and selfish choices guarantee that is never going to happen. Some of the film's most tender scenes involve John-John's earnest desire for Dad's affection and presence. And some of its least tender scenes show how divorce and instability hurt the boy, who is beginning to rebel against his mom. Revealing just how warped his understanding of love and marriage has become, John-John says of his parents' broken relationship, "Sure, they fight all the time. That's what people who love each other do."

[Spoiler Warning] Slowly, John-John realizes that Ben wants to give him what his biological father can't. And, to his credit, even J-Jizzy acknowledges that fact eventually.

Our first glimpse of Ben's good character comes when he gives some money to a homeless woman, even though (as we discover) he's practically destitute himself. Ben serves as a patient Santa Claus to scores of selfish mall brats. His interest in Nancy extends to his willingness to connect wholeheartedly with all three of her children too, even when John-John goes out of his way to sabotage the new relationship.

Ben's best friend, the bighearted Jamal, is loyal and a good listener. Jamal also works alongside his friend as Santa's elf; in one scene Jamal courageously stops a purse snatcher in the mall.

In its treatment of J-Jizzy, the film parodies the inflated self-importance of narcissistic musicians and illustrates how the quieter values of love, commitment and sacrifice are what matter most, not fame and materialism. J-Jizzy's long-suffering manager, Delicious, is depicted as much more levelheaded and mature than the star he manages.

Spiritual Content

In one scene, the narrator uses a magic-like spell to keep Ben from hurting himself badly after a fall, temporarily freezing his downward progress in midair.

One of J-Jizzy's songs says, "If it wasn't for our Savior's birth/Tell me what is Christmas worth?" Despite such a lyric however, Delicious feels that J-Jizzy's Christmas album lacks a song that captures the Christmas spirit. Delicious also tells his singer (who wears a cross) that listeners are more interested in "holy, holy, holy" at Christmas than seeing "nasty girls."

One song on the movie's soundtrack mentions angels and heaven. One of Emily's brothers makes a passing reference to the fact that she's treating Santa like a genie when it comes to her Christmas wishes.

Sexual Content

Nancy and Ben kiss several times—once lingeringly. Before a date, Marvin Gaye's song "Let's Get It On" is heard. After the kids go to bed one evening, Nancy does a slightly suggestive shimmy in front of Ben, but a plot twist prevents any further intimacy.

Nancy and her friends wear cleavage-revealing shirts and dresses. One of them says of a particularly figure-hugging outfit, "That's not a dress, that's bait." A video shoot for one of J-Jizzy's Christmas songs pictures the rapper as Santa with six scantily clad holiday helpers (short red skirts, plunging necklines) as his "reindeer." And he slyly says of Christmas, "I like ho, ho, hos." When his kids invite him into Mom's house for dessert, the rap star replies, "My dessert is out in the car."

To contrast the rapper's casual carnality, passing references are made about women wanting relationships with men who are interested in something more than a casual hook-up.

It's perhaps implied that Brenda spends the night with Jamal.

Violent Content

Ben falls over a railing while getting Mikey out of a two-story Christmas tree; his fall is broken by a large inflatable igloo. Jamal jumps on a trampoline and flies through the air before landing heavily on top of the purse snatcher.

Crude or Profane Language

Four or five instances of God's name being taken in vain ("oh my god," "swear to god"). One use of "d--n." Rude exclamations and name-calling includes "fat boy," "fat jerk," "snot-nosed," "stupid" and "sucks."

Drug and Alcohol Content

On their first date, Ben and Nancy meet at a nightclub and are shown having a glass of wine. They also have wine at Nancy's house.

Other Negative Elements

J-Jizzy feels that his Christmas album has everything it needs, summarized by the "three G's: girls, gangsta and Gucci." One of the songs mentioned is "I Saw Mommy Cappin' Santa Claus."

The point is obviously being made that he's out of line, but some of the things J-Jizzy does still need to be noted here: He says that he loves his kids, but his relationship with them usually just serves the purpose of projecting the image of a caring family man. And that's when he shows up at all. Nancy says of him, "He'll spend $50,000 in court [fighting for custody] but not three hours with his kids."

Ashamed of his "lowly" job as a Santa, Ben lies to Nancy about his work. Similarly Jamal lies to Brenda about his occupation. He claims to be a bounty hunter instead of a mall elf, going so far as to paper a wall in his apartment with "most wanted" mug shots.

In giving Ben "the treatment," John-John sets up Home Alone-esque traps. One involves dumping a bucket of green slime on Ben's head. (It backfires and ends up all over John-John instead.) He also puts super glue in Ben's bowling ball (which doesn't achieve the desired effect) and spreads peanut butter on his car-seat cover. John-John also looks for ways to torment Ben by doing Google searches such as "practical jokes, nuclear."

Bathroom references include, "Diarrhea can hit any time" and, "I gotta go dookie."

Conclusion

The two words that came most readily to mind as I walked out of The Perfect Holiday were Tyler and Perry. And it's not just because Gabrielle Union stars in it, either. Anyone who's ever seen any of filmmaker Tyler Perry's Madea movies or Daddy's Little Girls will instantly understand what I'm talking about. The warmth and strength of family bonds. The intentional moral statements. The clear critique of hip-hoppers who try to live up (or down) to their own gangsta hype.

Also mimicking Perry's style (but maybe a tad less overtly) is the film's smatterings of crudities and suggestive comments to both color and emphasize its points. But the emerging love between Ben and Nancy, two genuinely likeable and decent people, for the most part isn't sullied by cheap humor or sleazy situations. The overriding theme? The value of family—supported by the virtues of responsibility, sacrifice, commitment and affection.

From an aesthetic point of view, The Perfect Holiday isn't likely to show up on anyone's "Best of 2007" list. In fact, mainstream critics have mostly savaged it. But, as Salon's Stephanie Zacharek noted, "This modest, cheerful movie is the sort of holiday heartwarmer we don't see enough of anymore."

As long as modest is taken to mean small, not squeaky clean, I'll go along with that view.

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