The Best Man Holiday - which possesses a truly awful title, I hope we can all agree; even a simple apostrophe-s after "Man" would have helped - is the weirdest sequel of the year, greeted with some awfully hostile "why on earth are you bothering?" criticisms. I wish more films would do exactly the same thing, because it's a terrific idea.

Basically, it's pulling a page from the Before Sunset playbook: many years ago, we left these characters in a place where they were pretty good, but there's no reason to assume that their lives have stopped, and why not drop in to see how their lives are now that they had some years to mature and become fuller adults? In this case, it's been 14 years since The Best Man, which was a not completely successful ensemble film about the emotional tightrope of transitioning from the freedom and irresponsibility of college to the more more constrained world of early adulthood, and that's surely been enough time for these people to have kids, marital problems, big houses, careers, career problems, goes the logic. So it is, enough so that The Best Man Holiday, I'd argue, is an improvement on its predecessor, for at least two reasons: it's more tonally flexible (that is, the comic moments don't feel so badly taped on to a dramatic spine), and it has a lot more for people to do that aren't frustrated novelist Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs).

Fleshing out the situation from the earlier movie doesn't really matter much for the new one, but suffice to say that in '99, Harper was the best man at the wedding of Lance Sullivan (Morris Chestnut), presently a New York Giants running back approaching retirement, and at that wedding, it came out that Harper and Lance's bride Mia (Monica Calhoun) had slept together some time earlier. This, we understand, has left a rift between the two former best friends, that Mia hopes to mend with her unusually insistent invitations to the Sullivan Christmas celebrations, not just for Harper and his pregnant wife Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), but the whole gang from last time: Jordan (Nia Long who, not to be lookist, might be the most gorgeous 42-year-old actress in America right now), now a successful TV executive building a new paradigm for African-American media, while dating the absurdly white white dude Brian (Eddie Cibrian); Julian (Harold Perrineau) and his ex-stripper wife Candace (Regina Hall), operating a private school coming into financial difficulties since evidence of Candace's past life surfaced on YouTube, scaring off a moralising old investor; Quentin (Terrence Howard), still a huge pothead and schmoozer, but now using those skills to succeed as the head of a consulting firm; and Shelby (Melissa De Sousa), venal and nasty and starring on Real Housewives spin-off.

All sorts of plotlines attach to all of these characters, but they're all building up to the same theme, which is that we all have difficult, unpleasant things to deal with in our lives, and the whole entire point of having friends is to have somebody to help you get through those rough patches; so for the love of God, don't try to muscle your way through setbacks alone. Also, I gather that writer-director Malcolm D. Lee has the love of God particularly in mind as the bestest buddy you'll ever have to stand by you, though I appreciate that The Best Man Holiday doesn't go for nearly as much proselytising as a movie could when it's set during Christmas, and its only wholly decent character is also its most emphatically Christian. Heck, it's not even as messagey and aware of a "you need religion if you're going to make it" message as The Best Man was.

But anyway, this is basically a film about people attempting to reconnect, finding it difficult, and doing it anyway, because that's the sort of thing that you damn well do with friends who matter. It is marvelously generous film, more generous than the first (shrill bitch Shelby is given a completely natural-feeling opportunity to be more pleasant and she takes it, something that never came close to happening in 1999), and very much fond of the characters it walks through some helliciously brutal melodrama (in which one person's very obvious even before the surprise reveal cancer isn't even all that much darker than some of the things happening to other characters). Perhaps even too generous, as it becomes a little sleepy and stretched out long before its indulgent two hours and three minutes have wrapped up; when it's this clear that nobody is going to be a major fuckup, because they're all basically okay human beings, there's just not that much room to build conflict, which leads to a lot of ginned-up misunderstandings in the last 40 minutes, just to keep the thing moving along.

Plot and conflict aren't the driving forces here, though. This is a quintessential hang out movie, and it knows it: dropping the characters into a pornishly large house, and letting them meet in pairs and threes, and just talk and share thoughts on life (meanwhile, their assorted kids are being totally ignored and forgotten about, except when it is time to be cute, tearful, or both). Cinematically, there's not a lot here, and Lee and editor Paul Millspaugh manage to get themselves into real trouble with some shot-reverse shot sequences that follow the rhythm of dialogue too literally, and end up creating a feeling rather akin to motion sickness. Really, though, this is a film only interested in characters and actors, and though sometimes the lack of aesthetic flattens those two elements out more than they should be, for the most part it works on that level: generally speaking, the best actors are given the most to do, with Lathan, Hall, and Long forming a Murderesses' Row of absolutely terrific women etched clearly and with great warmth and personality, and Howard giving the easiest, most likable performance he's had in years. There's nothing great about it, but there's a whole lot of good enough, and I'm not sure that there's any sane argument that can be made against a movie where the whole point is watching likable people learning to heal their wounds. It's comfort food and not art; but it is about the holidays, after all.