If it’s late October, it must be time for Christmas movies to start making their unwelcome appearance as they do without fail every year. The underlying theme to most, if not all, Christmas films (“Silent Night, Deadly Night” notwithstanding) is the idea that the holiday season brings out the best in mankind. Crabby cinema protagonists – from Ebenezer Scrooge to the Grinch to Tim Allen on probation – all somehow reclaim their humanity and become better people, thanks to the spirit of Jesus (or Johnny Damon…whatever). It’s a quaint formula, but one that we’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds, of times already.
Still, the market for such stories must be pretty solid, because every year another assortment of holiday-themed films comes along. First out of the gate this year is “Surviving Christmas,” featuring a post-J. Lo Ben Affleck, on the loose and ready for love.
The premise to “Surviving Christmas” is fairly simple, and should be familiar to anyone unable to escape the film’s saturation bombing-style marketing campaign. Affleck plays Drew Latham, your typical “too busy for Christmas” executive type, who decides to rent a family for $250,000 in order to recapture that childhood holiday magic. Hilarity can only ensue, and ensue with extreme prejudice.
On the surface, you’d think this wouldn’t be too hard to pull off. I mean, who among us really has a problem visualizing Ben Affleck as a self-centered, obnoxious, pain in the a*s? And “Surviving Christmas” actually starts out with some promise. Traditional introductory yuletide scenes give way to grim jabs at holiday suicide and alcoholism, leading the audience to think they might be getting something in the spirit of “Bad Santa,” albeit rated PG-13. These sort of gags continues for a time, through Drew’s decision (at the behest of his girlfriend’s therapist) to visit his childhood home and exorcise some of his familial demons and his subsequent “renting” of the Valcos, the house’s current residents. Too quickly, however, it degenerates into the expected romantic schmaltz, as Drew must decide whether to pursue his erstwhile “sister” Alicia (Christina Applegate), and everyone laments their unfortunate family conditions.
Affleck may finally have found a use for his obnoxious personality, because Drew is amazingly annoying. It doesn’t hurt to have a foil like the always amusing Catherine O’Hara (as mother Christine Valco), of course, or James Gandolfini, who does what is essentially a 90-minute Tony Soprano slow burn as father Tom. Unfortunately, the results are all over the place. “Surviving Christmas” starts as a Christmas comedy with a bit of a cruel streak, but then clumsily segues into another interminable “will they or won’t they?” romantic comedy.
The moral of the film is hopelessly schizo as well. Over and above the initial $250K outlay, Drew attempts to worm his way into the family’s good graces by buying Tom a car, Christine a photo shoot, and hiring a helicopter to take Alicia and her brother Brian (Josh Zuckerman) tobogganing. Things inevitably fall apart, meaning the bribery didn’t work, right? But wait, maybe Drew and Alicia are getting together after all, so…perhaps the way to a person’s heart really is through spending exorbitant sums of money (even if nobody ends up happy, the Valcos are still 250 grand richer). What the hell kind of holiday message is that?
Here’s a thought: how about not going to see any Christmas movies this year? Let those Hollywood bastards know you’re sick of their endless attempts to tweak your emotions and make you feel guilty about being a scumbag the other eleven months of the year while they use profits from movies like “Surviving Christmas” to import stolen infants from South Asia in order to maintain a fresh supply of pancreatic islet cells(1). Spend the holidays with your family, or at least comfortably drunk, and avoid manipulative bilge like “Surviving Christmas.”
(1) That’s what I heard.
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