By far the best of a plethora of holiday family-reunion films, Maurice Jamal’s warmly hilarious Dirty Laundry is particularly blessed with the presence of Loretta Devine. The veteran actress plays Evelyn, a Georgia washerwoman matriarch, whose closeted, snobbish gay son Sheldon (Rockmond Dunbar) comes home from Manhattan to find that he has a 10-year-old son Gabriel (Aaron Grady Shaw), stemming from an early hetero indiscretion.
This writer recently complained that Devine never seems to show enough gumption in her film roles (i.e., the similarly themed This Christmas) to offset her sweetly girlish voice and cushiony physique. With Dirty Laundry, I take it all back, as she delivers a richly human, multi-faceted performance that deserves award consideration. She makes Evelyn one hard funny nut of a controlling mother who, having slaved all her life for her kids, wants to make sure they have exactly the lives she wants for them. Evelyn disguises her own romance with a local cabbie, all the better to snippily disapprove of her offsprings’ partners. She has amusing throwdowns with the desperately child-craving, somewhat mature wife of her other son (Jamal), commenting, “The last time she saw an egg, she ate it.”
Jamal’s plotting may not be the most original, but he comes up with enough funny lines and a terrific cast to make them zing, turning his modest film into one of the more entertaining Christmas offerings. Dunbar is handsome and often affecting (and wears the year’s best male film wardrobe) and Joey Costello, as his “secret” boyfriend Ryan, just manages to overcome an initially off-putting, too-swishy persona. (His character is the most cliched of Jamal’s notions and one is rather hard-pressed to understand what Sheldon sees in him.) Shaw has a distinctive gravity and refreshing naturalness, completely devoid of cutesiness. As an actor, Jamal has a salt-of-the-earth appeal, especially in a touching monologue in which he expresses jealousy of Sheldon’s always being Mama’s favorite and then leaving and leading his own life.
Jenifer Lewis sinks her avid choppers into the role of Aunt Lettuce, Evelyn’s obnoxious sister, and, as always, is a welcome hoot, especially when endlessly caterwauling in the church choir. A characterful assortment of gossipy, church-going hoochy mamas, sassy kids and nosy neighbors add zesty flavor—like in the old Preston Sturges smalltown farces.