Surviving Christmas (2004) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual content and language
Running Time: 92 min.
Cast: Ben Affleck, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Christina Applegate, Josh Zuckerman, Bill Macy, Jennifer Morrison, Udo Kier, Sy Richardson
Director: Mike Mitchell
Screenplay: Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont, Jeffrey Ventimilia, Joshua Sternin
Review published October 26, 2004
As a holiday comedy, Surviving Christmas has its moments, but not nearly enough to overcome the major weaknesses, the biggest of which comes from the fact that they reportedly shot many scenes without a finished script, despite four screenwriters being attached to the project. The result of this culminates in the uneven tone of the film, which alternates between black comedy, schmaltz, and screwball sitcom antics on a scene by scene basis. Of course, it doesn't help that Ben Affleck (Daredevil, Gigli) doesn't have the comic charisma to make up the difference.
Affleck plays a wealthy hot-shot advertising exec Drew Latham, who is shunned by his would-be fiancée (Morrison, Grind) for attempting to go on a trip with her over the Christmas season. She is outraged by the request because he has never bothered introducing her to his family, and since he doesn't even want to spend time with his family, she sees this as a sign he doesn't value them. Without any plans for the holidays, Drew begs every acquaintance he knows to let him spend time with them, because he doesn't want to be alone, but to no avail -- everyone has plans. On someone else's suggestion, he travels to his childhood home to try to overcome his fears, and soon meets the Valco family, the current occupants. They aren't very happy to have him near their home, but Drew makes them an offer they can't refuse -- $250,000, on the condition that they pretend to be his family for Christmas, and do all of the things families tend to do during that time.
As inept as it often is, Surviving Christmas actually does have a few moments of amusement -- not enough to recommend, but to state that it is devoid of anything good might be overstating it a bit. The feel of the film is very much like a 2-hour episode of a television comedy, a plot similar to Dickie Roberts, then laced with some of the darker humor that was evidenced in a previous Christmas comedy, Christmas Vacation. However, the writing just isn't crisp enough to ring witty, and the events that transpire aren't inspired enough to provide laughs on their own, so we're left with Affleck in all his mugging glory, trying desperately to milk a few giggles when there are none to be found. The real problem with ad-libbing most of the lines is that, while most of the actors have played comedy successfully before, only Catherine O'Hara (A Mighty Wind, Beetlejuice) is an experienced improvisational comedian, so the rest of the actors are forced to act funny, without actually being funny.
Surviving Christmas will probably never be a holiday classic, mostly because it isn't very successful at ever achieving a sense of holiday cheer, family unity, or good will for one's fellow man. Instead, director Mike Mitchell's intent is to provide a few laughs, mostly crass, and try like the dickens to squeeze this into a suit of sentimentality by the film's finale. It just doesn't work. Unless you really, really, really like Ben Affleck's smile, which he shows at every available opportunity, my recommendation is to skip this in favor of any of the other half dozen films to come out during the lucrative holiday season.
©2004 Vince Leo