Ben Affleck and Josh Zuckerman in DreamWorks Surviving Christmas - 2004
Photo Copyright DreamWorks Pic
The holiday season is a time for joy, charity, and family. It's that one time of the year when everyone turns from their selfish ways and looks toward the betterment of mankind. Except, currently, it's not the holiday season. It's the Halloween season; a time when everyone turns from their selfish ways and looks toward scaring the hell out of those who trust us the most. Ben Affleck's new yuletide romp, Surviving Christmas, may be a tad early, but when you are forced to navigate through a whole month of horror films, a little edgy humor might just do the trick.
At first glance, Surviving Christmas, looks to be a kind of sad rip-off of that marvelous seasonal mainstay, Christmas Vacation. Indeed, it has all the elements. Wacky relatives, slapstick humor, and an assurance that we're all going to learn something about the true meaning of Christmas by the end. However, Ben's movie holds its own and develops its own feel. Sure, it still has the wacky relatives, slapstick humor, and inevitable lesson, and no, it's not as good as Christmas Vacation, but due to Affleck's impeccable comic timing and a stellar supporting cast, Surviving Christmas manages to avoid being the throw-away piece of trash the studio obviously thought it was when they bumped it from last Christmas, to this Halloween.
Ben Affleck is Drew, a slick young millionaire, owner of one of the hottest ad agencies in Chicago. Drew is a reasonably nice guy, but as shallow as a K-Mart kiddie pool, a trait that unfortunately makes itself most apparent at Christmastime. When he suggests that he and his girlfriend spend the holidays in Fiji instead of with family, she storms out, leaving him to suffer through a lonely Christmas by himself in his giant, empty apartment. This is more than he can bear, and what follows is a hilarious sequence whereby Drew attempts to cajole old friends into inviting him to their house for the holidays. "Yeah, well, maybe your wife doesn't have to be there for Christmas. Maybe it's just me and you, dude. Djya ever think about that? Hello?" Finally, in one of the more forced plot devices I've seen, Drew is told by a therapist to return to his childhood and come to grips with it. So, we're off and running. Drew returns to the old homestead, meets the new family that lives there, and, with a minimum of wrangling, manages to buy his way into their Christmas, with each of them playing an appointed familial role.
It's fair to say that the main problem with this movie is that much of the wackiness feels forced. As I said, the premise that drives the antics is somewhat ridiculous, and at times the humor feels artificially amped up, as if everyone is laughing at a joke that no one really thinks is funny. These times are few and far between, luckily, and if the situations feel forced, maybe it's because Affleck's character is forcing them. Right from the start, Drew runs afoul of his purchased family. James Gandalfini, as "dad" has a short fuse and little patience for the antics of an eccentric millionaire trying to recapture his childhood, especially in light of his crumbling marriage to "mom," Catherine O'Hara. Mom is burned out, cynical and frustrated that her son, "little bro," spends all of his time up in his room on the computer. The only thing they can all agree on, however, is that $250,000 is worth any amount of hassle. The real fireworks begin, however, when the family's real daughter, Christina Applegate, arrives home for the holidays. (Drew, who claims to have never had a sister, insists on calling her "Consuela" the Brazilian maid.) Add to the mix "Doodah," the doddering old grandfather (a character actor hired by Drew) and you have the makings of a full-on Christmas nightmare.
Surviving Christmas is never going to become a holiday classic. If fact, it will probably be considered a failure, lambasted by the critics and making only minimal box office, considering The Grudge or Saw will seem like more likely choices for Halloween movie-goers. It's too bad, really, because it's a funny movie, and sweet in its own way. Affleck has the makings of a good comic actor, and you can't beat O'Hara and Gandalfini as seething suburbanites. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you'll decide to take a break from the blood and check out this relatively inoffensive second-tier holiday romp for a few easy laughs. If enough of us do that, Ben Affleck may yet survive Christmas. Grade: B
Surviving Christmas is rated PG-13 for language and mature situations.
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