Surviving Christmas

on October 22, 2004 by Mark Keizer
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Drew Lathem (Ben Affleck) is a millionaire ad executive who has everything, except a family. Three hundred and sixty-four days a year, this is not a problem. But on Christmas, when even the most contentious family manages to put aside their differences and choke down some ham, Drew has nowhere to go. Dumped by girlfriend Missy after offering to take her to Fiji (an idea that makes less sense than releasing a Christmas movie in October), Drew is facing another lonely holiday.

So he returns to his childhood home and offers $250,000 to the strangers living there to pretend to be his family for Christmas. For Drew, this is serious business. A contract is drawn up, an attorney is present, the particulars are agreed upon and the deal is signed. With big money at stake, the Valco clan is begrudgingly game. Father Tom (James Gandolfini) rolls his eyes when forced to don a Santa hat while mother Christine (Catherine O'Hara) manages a straight face while calling Drew her son. But when daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate) returns home with no interest in pretending she has a brother, the wheels come off Drew's holiday plan.

Surviving Christmas is never outrageously funny, but it wrings enough smiles out of its premise that you feel the concept has been fully explored to bargain matinee satisfaction. Drew buys into the reality of this pathetic arrangement, bounding around town, all smiles, while taking his phony family on trips to pick a Christmas tree and buy presents. Those scenes generally work. Other scenes, like when the Valcos express Yuletide cheer by reading a Drew-penned script and when Drew surprises Alicia with an elaborate Christmas gift, seem more like screenplay inventions meant to gets us from Point A to Point B.

The movie feels pleasant enough, but one wishes it had staked out more ambitious ground. It forfeits a chance to be more of a black comedy (an opening montage ends with a grandmother putting her head in an oven) and shows little interest in the escalating embarrassment that made "Meet the Parents" so outrageous. Not a problem had the film been able to make the emotional turn necessary for the final product to resonate. However, it's not. When it comes time for unforced sentiment, the script, credited to lots and lots of people, either can't rise to the challenge or just ignores the challenge altogether. Director Mike Mitchell seems to grant everyone a happy ending because he's supposed to, not because he wants to (although the final exchange between Tom and Christine is sweet in its simplicity).

Indeed, nothing in director Mitchell's resume (which includes "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo") would suggest he could direct a holiday classic. And this film does little to dispel that notion. Luckily, he's smart enough to stay out of the way, giving the actors plenty of room. The film benefits from pros like Gandolfini, whose burly presence and half-lidded stare are fun to watch. Regarding Affleck, whether it's his tabloid ubiquity or his deficiencies as an actor, one is always inclined to hate him going in. But here he's fine, even if he doesn't mean to be. There's a frat boy scumminess to this Affleck guy, which serves the character well. Of the other supporting players, Applegate and comedic treasure O'Hara bite their respective lips and dive in effectively.

In the pantheon of modern wannabe holiday classics, the movie is hardly on par with "Elf," "A Christmas Story" or "Home for the Holidays." What "Surviving Christmas" most aspires to is 1987's "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," which was able to generate a surprising amount of emotion for what seemed content to be a bunch of Steve Martin silliness. Unfortunately, "Surviving Christmas" is unable to induce that all-important holiday tear. Nevertheless, although its Christmas stocking may have holes, there are still goodies inside. Starring Ben Affleck, James Gandolfini, Christina Applegate and Catherine O'Hara. Directed by Mike Mitchell. Written by Deborah Kaplan & Harry Elfont and Jeffery Ventimilia & Joshua Sternin. Produced by Jenno Topping and Betty Thomas. A DreamWorks release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and a brief drug reference. Running time: 92 min

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