Directed By: Mike Mitchell
Screenplay By: Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont, Jeffrey Ventimilia, Joshua Sternin
Story By: Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont
Produced By: Betty Thomas, Jenno Topping
Cast: Ben Affleck, James Gandolfini, Christina Applegate, Catherine O’Hara, Josh Zuckerman, Bill Macy, Jennifer Morrison
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 91 minutes
Review Date: December 24, 2010
If you can survive Surviving Christmas, you either have an unhealthy infatuation with Ben Affleck or the patience of Job. Since there aren’t terribly many of either types out there, my best of luck to you if you find yourself tuning in to this, quite possibly the dumbest excuse for a Christmas movie I’ve ever seen.
Surviving Christmas belongs in the same category of Yuletide traditions as standing in line with screaming kids to see Santa, cooking for three dozen people, donning an ugly sweater, and pretending to laugh at your lousy relatives’ same puns over and over again. It’s a truly headache-inducing experience that does a thorough job of sucking the Christmas spirit right out of you.
I would rather work retail on Christmas Eve than sit through this tripe for an hour and a half. If I had to pick between watching this movie again, and standing in line at the DMV for the duration of its running time, there would be a coin flip in my future.
It’s one of those movies that is magically bad. So bad, in fact, that it transcends even the notion of being a spectacle of itself and goes straight to being the elephant in the room. The kind of manufactured idiocy you can only roll your eyes at for so long until it hurts.
Surviving Christmas opens with a montage to — of course — Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” during which we see shots of people struggling with the commercialization of the holiday. A guy chucks his wedding ring into the salvation army plate, an old woman draws frowns on all her gingerbread cookies, then sticks her head in the oven. It’s almost enough to set up the expectation of a black comedy — but the rest of what follows is neither subtle nor funny.
Ben Affleck plays Drew Latham, an obnoxious ad exec who has a black hole in the family department, a fact we learn when his fiancé Missy shoots down his proposition to fly to Fiji for the holidays and none of his “friends” or colleagues want him clinging around. He feels doomed to spend Christmas alone in his gigantic apartment, until he gets an idea from a therapist to write down and burn any grievances he has been harboring since his childhood. This takes him to his childhood home in the suburbs, which is now occupied by the Valco family, headed by Tom (James Gandolfini). Before he’s forcefully ejected from the premises, Drew offers to buy the family for the holidays, for $250,000. At this point he turns into a bossy five-year old and takes Tom, his wife Christine (Catherine O’Hara), and son Brian (Josh Zuckerman) prisoner, forcing them through his childishly maniacal obstacle course.
Affleck’s performance is that of a completely, unsympathetically crazy person — an emotionally bankrupt human being. He’s the guy at work who seems like he could be cool from a distance, but then you learn the hard way not to get stuck in the break-room with him because he talks and talks and talks about the dumbest shit and your only viable response is to just creep back out one step at a time as he continues to talk at you.
It’s never explained how a guy with zero family, no startup capital, and the mentality of a five-year-old is able to pay his way through college and apparently become a thirty-something millionaire who must wipe his ass every morning with $100 bills.
There is no character here. It’s just Ben Affleck being an idiot for about 90 minutes.
By the time Christina Applegate is introduced to the mix as the contrived love interest, my affinity for his character was at such an all-time low, that I was opposed to any prospect of him in a relationship with another human being. Despite the relentless bludgeoning of the plot, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be cheering for him to seduce Applegate’s character, or for her to finally free herself from his clutches. I just felt uncomfortable about the pairing entirely.
For a movie about a manufactured Christmas, it’s like watching a scripted reality game show that’s been viciously exorcised of any and all semblances of humor that might have cropped up, even accidentally. We’re as disenfranchised with the idea as the actors are, whose expressions of bewilderment and vexation at Drew’s tiresome childlike antics I can only surmise to be completely genuine. The atmosphere on set must have been agonizing.
You’re never sure which side you’re supposed to root for; Drew certainly isn’t a stable protagonist and only Applegate’s character, seen sparingly, anchors the nonsense. The Valcos are possibly the most boring family ever, so utterly devoid of life, so inorganic, that I felt no greater attachment to their fates than I do watching the contestants on The Price Is Right. James Gandolfini sports the same exasperated, demoralized expression on his face the entire movie, a look that says, “Why am I here?”
The painfully sentimental soundtrack only adds insult to injury. Every ironically placed Christmas song is like another dash of salt in an open wound.
The script is devoid of logic, frequently raising the wrong questions. Each plot point is a sledgehammer to the back of the head. And yet no explanation is offered as to why the Valco family needs the money other than the fact that it’s a lot of money. For $250,000, no punishment we see Drew dish out should come close to shaking Tom’s resolve, and yet he predictably reaches calculated levels of exasperation. How could he not sit there grinning like an idiot, laughing all the way to the bank?
I can’t recall ever being so dispassionate about a film’s plot. Each ham-fisted pass at comedy is so painfully obvious, so insulting to the intelligence of the audience, that it’s the equivalent of dropping a boom mic into the shot. I was so in awe at its ugly, whopping mess of a production that I couldn’t stay engaged for more than thirty seconds at a time. It’s like seeing a costumed character mascot from Chuck E. Cheese out of context, in harsh daylight — every zipper, seam, and sweat or spilled pop stain glaringly palpable.
Surviving Christmas is a lot of things, but unfortunately not one of them is a watchable movie. This could be administered as psychological torture to unruly inmates, or perhaps more fitting for its title, as a training exercise in psychological endurance to — no, I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.
Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.