Surviving Christmas (2004)
Surviving Christmas was originally supposed to be released, get this, a whole year ago for Christmas 2003. Paramount objected to the original release, saying it was too close to the release of their own Ben Affleck action flick, Paycheck (I doubt anything could have helped that turkey). So Dreamworks held onto it for another year and released it around the holidays. Halloween that is. The nation hasn’t even experienced Halloween or Thanksgiving yet, and we’re already getting a Christmas movie in our stocking. Given Affleck’s recent track record (the man hasn’t had a hit movie since 2002’s Sum of All Fears), audiences might not expect more than a lump of coal when his name’s above the title.
Drew (Affleck) is a cynical ad executive trying to figure out his plans for the approaching Christmas season. He gives his girlfriend tickets to Fiji, but she expected an engagement ring, so she dumps him right there claiming he doesn’t know what family life is. Drew finds his old family home now populated by the Valco family. He offers Papa Valco (James Gandolfini) $250,000 for him and his wife (Catherine O’Hara), son, and daughter (Christina Applegate) to be his family for Christmas. Papa Valco accepts. Drew is a stickler for family tradition, and mandates tree shopping, hat wearing, dinner script reading, and sleeping in his old room. The family’s hostility begins to wear down but things get even stickier when Drew falls for the Valco’s daughter, and then his ex-girlfriend shows up wanting to see his family.
The central flaw of the film is Affleck’s character. Drew is a jerk. That’s all there is to it. Somehow Affleck has become the go-to actor for arrogant, work obsessed men that desperately need to see that there’s more to life (Bounce, Jersey Girl, Forces of Nature). I think this is also the second or third time he’s played an ad executive. Surviving Christmas seems to exist in some weird dimension where a jerk shows us the true meaning of Christmas and family togetherness. What’s even worse is that Drew doesn’t change as a character, he doesn’t seem to grow, and the ending actually seems to reward him for his selfish, material, obnoxious ways.
I like Affleck, I really do. I like his work in Kevin Smith’s films, and he can make a good action hero if given the right material (Say a Sum of All Fears, and not so much a Paycheck). The man is charming, he’s eloquent, and he’s self-deprecating and constantly funny. He’s the kind of guy you want to buy a beer. Now, having said all this, Surviving Christmas is Affleck’s worst performance of his career. Affleck can do comedy, and not just in a Greek tragedy kind of way with his life in the tabloids. In Surviving Christmas, Affleck mugs like nothing is sacred. His eyes bug out. He exaggerates near any expression, from his smug grin to his childish fits. For a man who has Gigli, Reindeer Games, and Pearl Harbor to his credit, it’s something when it’s said that Surviving Christmas may be his acting low point.
Gandolfini seems to have been cast to play against type. He’s still got that flinty stare and slow simmer of anger, but he’s generally wasted. He’s the comic foil to Affleck’s jerk, and yet he still doesn’t come across that much better. His monstrous woolly beard is also mildly disturbing. Applegate brings more life to her love interest role than the role deserves. Her romance with Drew seems so spontaneous, especially given her natural hostility to him. The only actor that has any real moments to stretch and shine is O’Hara. A veteran of improv, O’Hara has some of the film?s funnier moments, like when she makes mini marshmallows with a butcher’s knife, or her wild photo shoot Drew arrangers for her.
Surviving Christmas is indeed a chore to sit through. The movie, at its gooey heart, doesn’t know what kind of holiday film it wants to be. A good example is the opening montage of holly jolly Christmas sequences. In between standard, saccharine moments of feeling, there?s an old grandmotherly woman who bakes a tray of gingerbread men, with frosted frowns, and then sticks her head in an oven. Huh? Surviving Christmas tries to have it both ways. It wants to lampoon Christmas sentiment with the occasional touch of dark humor, but then it plays into a feel-good holiday formula complete with sled rides, tree lighting, and hot cocoa. The result is a schizophrenic comedy that doesn’t work being dark or cuddly.
The whole wacky premise of Surviving Christmas screams sitcom, and the conventional proceedings and stock characters that follow guarantee it. The only way this could be more of a sitcom is if they drew a line down the middle of the house, the boss was coming over for dinner unexpectedly, and a pesky cat swallowed someone’s wedding ring. Surviving Christmas‘ relation to a sitcom is the only way I can explain why the film has stale jokes about internet porn (What, there’s porn on the Internet? When did this happen?). There’s even horny old men and wedgie jokes too! This is a movie in desperate need of a laugh track. I kept expecting everyone to turn their heads and go, “Dreeeeeeeeew” and then Affleck shrugs his shoulders, bugs his eyes out, smirks, and the studio audience goes wild.
It probably doesn’t help that Surviving Christmas is credited to over five writers and was directed by the director of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. The comedy rarely hits its marks because it’s so frustratingly tied up in its identity. The film wants to make incest jokes, but then in the same breath it wants us to listen to some syrupy back story explaining why Drew is the lonely, socially challenged jerk he is. The laughs of Surviving Christmas are mostly limited to broad slapstick and the occasional inappropriate remark. The preview audience I watched the film with seemed to be rolling in the aisles while I mostly rolled my eyes.
There will be a section of the public that enjoys Surviving Christmas. Fans of Christmas cheer and broad PG-13 comedies may find laughs amongst the wreckage. Surviving Christmas doesn’t have the gusto to commit to black comedy like Bad Santa (a new Christmas classic), but it also doesn’t build its characters strongly enough for an audience to care about them. They’re all mainly jerks and twits. This is a Christmas movie that doesn’t know what stripes it is. How else to explain it coming out in late October.
Nate’s Grade: C