– Summary –
Director : Mike Mitchell
Cast : Ben Affleck, James Gandolfini, Christina Applegate, Catherine O’Hara, Josh Zuckerman, Bill Macy, Jennifer Morrison, Udo Kier, David Selby, Stephanie Faracy, Stephen Root, Sy Richardson.
Length : 100 Minutes
Synopsis: A yuppie advertising executive attempts to recapture the feeling of Christmas by bribing a family living in his childhood home to pretent to be his family.
Review : Inane and stupid on virtually every level.
There are Christmas movies, and then there are Christmas movies. While some genuine gems slide up from the muckity muck, generally, the calibre of Hollywood Yuletide cinema resides somewhere around the level of a second rate porn production: bereft of hilarity, common sense or even Christmas spirit. And so it was with great reticence that I sat down with the wife to watch Ben Affleck take the spirit of Christmas, lube it up, bend it over, and show it what a chestnut looks like.
Surviving Christmas takes a long, staggeringly stupefying look at depression over Christmas, throws in an unbelievable story twist, a half-baked romance, and tries to get us all to think it’s far cleverer than it is. Affleck plays Drew Latham, a super-successful advertising guru (in the same vein as Mel Gibson in What Women Want) who finds himself alone over Christmas; his girlfriend finds his present of a trip to Fiji a little tacky and un-Christmassy. So, after a brief encounter with his girlfriends sisters shrink at the airport, Drew undertakes a journey to recapture his childhood memories of Christmas by returning to visit his old home.
Upon arriving at his childhood stomping ground, Drew meets the current residents of the house: The Valcos, a dysfunctional family unit who find Drew and his request to have a look around a little weird, but ultimately, agree to his request. However, in some sort of bizarre Christmas-cheer overload, Drew decides to offer the Valco family $250,000 if he can spend the perfect Christmas with them, tinsel, trees, presents and all. The patriarch of the Valco family, Tom (James Gandolfini) accepts on behalf of his family, who we soon discover aren’t as happy as first thought. Both Tom and his wife Christine (Catherine O’Hara) are about to separate, although they haven’t told their children, Brian (Josh Zuckerman) or Alicia (Christina Applegate). Drew becomes the family’s surrogate “son”, even going so far as to call Tom and Christine “mom and dad”. He pays the family to do everything he wants to make his Christmas perfect, something that the family increasingly detests as he uncovers their own problems. let me just repeat that for those of you struggling to comprehend what I just wrote: Drew pays a family of complete strangers, who just happen to live in his old family home, to create the illusion of the perfect Christmas just so he won’t get lonely during the holiday season.
Alicia, who arrives and isn’t privy to the deal her father has made with Drew, eventually begins to fall for the desperate, lonely man, although as you’d expect in a film like this, the path to true love is rocky and filled with twists and turns. And stupidity, it seems. Everything about Surviving Christmas makes any sane viewer want to pull their eyes out of their sockets and stomp them into pulp. The script and characters in this film as so far beyond clichéd and trivialised that it’s screamingly dense. For a start, Drew is so bewilderingly stupid and insane it’s beyond comprehension. Affleck does a good job trying to make the character work, but he’s so inherently unlikeable, so beyond scary-insane for company during Christmas that he’d pay people to be his friends in some last act of desperation, that as a viewer, you’re completely turned off the character. He starts the film reasonably affable, a little roguish, as we learn he’s a very good salesman. But things go off the rails for him, and his character takes a sharp left turn from common sense into outright insanity so quickly you start to wonder if they’re the same person! The script makes Drew look so unrecognisable from start to finish, any character arc they were trying to develop is lost in amongst the mugging and cheerful banality he throws about.
Poor James Gandolfini fares no better, although little can be said about a man who spends the entire film looking like a reject from a Lumberjack Convention. Where’d the beard come from, and what’s it for, James? Surely the character didn’t require the beard to ensure great character development? Gandolfini is completely out of his depth as Tom Valco, the surly, bitter and angry father who still loves (but can’t stand) his wife, and who takes Drew’s money without a second thought. Gandolfini tries to be either a misunderstood family man, or an angry father on the edge of taking a gun to work and opening fire; Tom Valco is almost as unlikeable as Drew quickly becomes. The thin plot device of having Drew and Tom’s daughter Alicia get together is so badly written, so forced upon the viewer, that it’s perhaps the single worst romantic notion since Madonna and Guy Ritchie hooked up to film Swept Away. Affleck and Applegate have as much romantic tension between them as I have in my little left toe, and it shows. Their dialogue is clunky, their scenes dreadfully edited, and their characters so shallow and derivative, it’s hard to really know where to start.
So it falls to the second-teri characters to hold this “comedy” together, if you can call a series of dislikeable people jabbering at each other around a Christmas turkey a comedy. Josh Zuckerman, as the youngest Valco member, Brian, is limited to staring at porn on a computer screen, something the scriptwriter and production staff must have thought would bring in the teen boys to this drivel; it’s amusing the first time. But only the first time. Bill Macy tries his best to deliver anything resembling class to this film as Doo-Dah, a stand in for Drew’s long lost Grandfather, but even he cannot do much here. House MD‘s Jennifer Morrison appears as Drew’s ritzy girlfriend Missy, who becomes caught up in the shenanigans as she arrives at the Valco house to meet the people she believes to be Drew’s family. From there, all sorts of “hilarity” ensues, as Drew must his his feelings for Missy from Alicia, and vie versa. Morrison plays it straight, and generally succeeds, until the final uppity moment when she discovers the insane plan Drew has embarked upon and leaves him.
But the most tragic figure in this whole convoluted mess is Catherine O’Hara as Christine, the Valco matriarch, whose relationship with her husband has devolved to such a degree that she’s barely speaking to him. She takes Drew up on his suggestion of an expensive photo shoot (at Drew’s expense, of course) which ends up on the internet (and on son Brian’s screen!) and draws the wrath of Tom down upon them all. O’Hara tries her best to deal with the whacked out script, and tries to nail her character down to the most basic; and fails. The film is a muddled mess of generic characters and false situations, all wrapped up in gigantic Christmas colours and the sentimentality you’d expect from Hollywood’s magic factory. The pity of it all is that there could be better films made for less money than this. Ben Affleck needs to fire his agent for allowing him to make such dreck, even for the pay check.
Surviving Christmas is perhaps the most obnoxious, annoying and shallow Christmas movie I’ve seen in years: I knew going in it was going to be absolute crap, and my worst fears were borne out. Ludicrously plotted, diabolically scripted (by half a dozen “writers” no less, which is perhaps why the screenplay reads like a badly scripted sitcom) and worst of all, the film tries to be poignant and deliver a message about being lonely during Christmas…. apparently, the season overcomes even marriage breakdowns. Hard to agree with, considering the statistics that say otherwise, but there you have it. This dreadfully un-amusing film makes a mockery of the season it so readily purports to support: there is no sense of seasonal cheer or happiness; instead, we’re treated to the film equivalent of a psychological enema, as Drew tries to discover the meaning of Christmas once more. Ugh. If this is what people think makes a good Christmas film, then there truly is no hope for any of us.
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