Looking back, it was clear from the opening moments that Surviving Christmas was going to fall flat. Like just about every other holiday comedy ever made, the film opens with an overplayed classic Christmas song (“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”) set to a montage of people preparing for the big day. We then meet the central character, Drew Latham (Ben Affleck) – an advertising executive. As far as I know, there’s never been a study done but I’d be willing to wager that at least 50% of movie characters have this job. It seems to be the career-of-choice for screenwriters who want to shorthand the fact that their leads are either shallow, morally unprincipled, or socially inept. This is all in the first five minutes, mind you. It seems obvious now that these were red flags, flying high from the start.
Drew immediately strikes us as what I like to call the ICMP, or Irresponsible Career-Minded Person. In other words, he’s a flake who needs a healthy dose of reality to help him shape up and become a better person. His girlfriend Missy (Jennifer Morrison) tells him the same thing. Drew wants to spend Christmas with her in Fiji, but she firmly believes the holidays are a time for family. When he refuses to even introduce her to his own family, she dumps him.
A therapist (Stephen Root) tells the suddenly distraught Drew that he needs to perform a cleansing ritual to make himself feel better. Expanding on the shrink’s advice, Drew returns to his childhood home, now the residence of the Valco family: blue-collar dad Tom (James Gandolfini), harried mother Christine (Catherine O’Hara) and internet porn-addicted teen Brian (Josh Zuckerman). Drew offers the Valcos $250,000 to act as his pretend family for Christmas. This means engaging in whatever cockamamie holiday rituals he feels will be beneficial in recapturing the magic of his childhood. Tom accepts on behalf of the others (whom he doesn’t bother to consult) and the outsider moves in. What Drew doesn’t realize is that the Valcos are just barely holding together as a family; Tom and Christine are on the verge of separating.
The early scenes of Surviving Christmas focus on Drew’s demands: making Tom wear a Santa hat, getting the tree from a specific store, sleeping in his old bedroom. Then oldest child Alicia (Christina Applegate) returns home. She is appalled to find that her parents have prostituted themselves out, and furthermore she finds Drew to be creepy.
Based on what I have just told you, do you think you’re able to predict the entire arc of the story? Do you think the feuding Drew and Alicia will fall madly in love? Do you think Drew’s wacky ways will help Tom and Christine rekindle their love? Do you think Drew will end up as a less shallow person than he was at the beginning?
The story is certainly predictable, but the jokes are predictable too. This is one of those movies where most of the jokes involve the humiliation of the characters. Someone will always walk into a room at the most inopportune moment. Innocent comments will be misinterpreted in embarrassing ways. Once you hook onto this fact, it’s impossible not to see almost every joke coming a mile away. When Drew tries to boost Christine’s self-esteem by paying for a sexy makeover and photo shoot, I knew exactly where those pictures would end up and who would see them. Watching Surviving Christmas is like being told a joke you’ve already heard before, where there’s nothing to do but sit and wait for the punchline.
To be fair, there were some moments where I did laugh. As a big-time “Sopranos” fan, James Gandolfini is a favorite of mine and I very much enjoyed seeing him play comedy. He isn’t afraid to give Tom an edge of danger, which is welcome in the otherwise white-bread film. Christina Applegate – a really underrated comic actress – also earns laughs, although most of them come when her character despises Drew. Once she has to soften up, Alicia becomes less pleasantly sarcastic. And, of course, you can always rely on the wonderful Catherine O’Hara for a few giggles.
I think the movie would have been greatly improved had the characters been developed more carefully. Drew, for instance, remains an enigma throughout. What really compels a materialistic playboy to suddenly become obsessed with recapturing his youth? And, more to the point, why does he start acting like a complete goofball the second he moves in? It would have been nice to know more about the Valcos too. We are told that they aren’t getting along, but we never see any real friction between them. Maybe if we had more of a sense of their decaying marriage, we might have believed the impact Drew ultimately has on them. Even the character of Drew’s girlfriend Missy makes no sense. Initially, she seems very down-to-earth – a likable young woman whose need to be grounded sets Drew out on his mission. But when the script needs comic friction later on, she inexplicably becomes a gold-digging elitist snob.
The seed of a good idea is here. Christmas is, for some families, a very emotional and difficult time. Some individuals find themselves alone, lonely, and depressed during the holiday season. Although it’s a wonderful and meaningful time, there can also be a lot of pressure. A great comedy could be made from this concept. Surviving Christmas doesn’t have that kind of ambition, instead aiming to be a disposable piece of middle-of-the-road fluff. It aims for mediocrity and hits the bullseye.
( out of four)
Surviving Christmas is rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and a brief drug reference. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.
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