True love

Gabrielle Union and Morris Chestnut have a deception-ridden romance in “The Perfect Holiday.” (Yari Film Group Release)

"The Perfect Holiday" strives to be nothing more than easygoing and heartwarming, as well as to serve up relatively clean PG fare and, according to the press materials, to be "the first African American ensemble comedy for the Christmas season."

Well, there was an African American ensemble comedy that came out in November called "This Christmas," but technically that was an African American ensemble comedy for the Thanksgiving season.

It was also a fair bit more engaging than this overplotted and underwhelming picture, in which Queen Latifah and Terrence Howard act as sparring, twinkling narrators of a story about finding true love and a hit song in the nick of time.

Gabrielle Union, who deserves better material, as do her costars, plays Nancy, a single mother of three. Her unreliable ex (Charlie Murphy) is a rapper who goes by J-Jizzy, recording a new Christmas album featuring such tender songs as "I Saw Mommy Cappin' Santa Claus" and "Jiggle All the Way." (As I said: relatively clean PG fare.) Jizzy's manager (Katt Williams, the best thing going here) urges his star to include one heartfelt tune.

What a coincidence! Sweet aspiring songwriter Benjamin (Morris Chestnut, who sometimes confuses "relaxed" with "somnambulant") has just the tune at the ready, if he can convince someone in the biz to give it a listen.

To make the rent, Benjamin works as a mall elf alongside his Santa pal (Faizon Love). Sometimes they switch roles, and when one of Nancy's kids asks Benjamin-as-Santa for some nice man to give her mom a compliment, Benjamin obliges. Deception-ridden romance ensues -- Benjamin keeps his mall gig a secret -- and throughout "The Perfect Holiday," Latifah and Howard act as commentators, nudging the contrivances this way and that.

Co-writer and director Lance Rivera's film intermittently comes to life, usually for nonholiday-related reasons. Williams, for example, can get more comic mileage out of a riff on someone's milky-colored shirt than most comedians can get in a full-length concert.

But the film lacks any sort of cinematic personality. It does not lack for product placement though. Two key scenes are set in a Starbucks, and if audiences filing out of "The Perfect Holiday" are heard muttering "must . . . buy . . . Christmas Blend . . . now" in unison, well . . . mission accomplished.

"The Perfect Holiday." MPAA rating: PG (for brief language and some suggestive humor). Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. In wide release.