A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, PG-13, 89 mins.

Ben Affleck: Drew Latham / James Gandolfini: Tom Valco / Christina Applegate: Alicia Valco / Catherine O'Hara: Christine Valco

Directed by Mike Mitchell / Written by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfront

I was not altogether sure how to start my review of the new Christmas comedy SURVIVING CHRISTMAS, so I will begin by saying this:  I have always respected Ben Affleck, even when most of my contemporary film critics have not been so kind to him.  I think that the near epic and galactic media focus on his previous relationship with a certain Jenny from the Block has sort saturated and overshadowed his image and reputation as a dependable and bankable film star. 

Lately, critics seem to unload on poor old Benny all of the time in the most malicious manner possible, which I think is a bit unfair.  Let’s not forget that he’s a very respected creative talent (he co-wrote GOOD WILL HUNTING, for which he won an Oscar for screenwriting), as well as a good actor.  Yes, he may not have a considerable amount of range, but he’s always engaging, humble, and sensitive in his performances.  He gave a tender performance in Kevin Smith’s CHASING AMY as a man that was falling in love with a lesbian, and he carried this year’s JERSEY GIRL with a performance as a widowed father of equal economy and humility.  He was also charismatic and winning as DAREDEVIL, the Marvel superhero, as well as playing a younger leading man in the form of Jack Ryan in THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (it’s a tough act to follow in Harrison Ford’s shoes).  In CHANGING LANES he gave arguably his best performance as a character that simultaneously inspired our sympathy and contempt.  Like it or not, Affleck has talent. 

Yet, after watching the cinematic disaster that is SURVIVING CHRISTMAS, Affleck is going to have to put in some serious overtime to regain some of my respect.  The best way possible for me to encapsulate the film is by saying that it’s a grand and bold masterpiece of epic implausibility, a film so utterly bankrupted of any amount of modest reality that I stared at the screen, completely dumbfounded, and pitifully questioned how a product such as this can see the light of day, even with smart and talented actors. 

The biggest crime this film commits is that it has no idea what it wants to be.  Does SURVIVING CHRISTMAS want to be a vicious and dark black comedy or an uplifting and sentimental holiday film in the tradition of the most memorable Christmas classics?  Well, I sure as hell don’t know, and I just realized that I used the word “classic” in the same sentence as SURVIVING CHRISTMAS.  This film is so desperate for its laughs that it feels the need to pepper us with a story that I, not for once, believed in, nor did I really buy into any of the characters or their respective motivations.  The film is a textbook exercise in showing everyone trying too hard to get our investment in them.  I did not get that type of emotional resonation, nor did I laugh very much, which is, I guess, kind of important in a comedy. 

The film starts with a small glimmer of hope with the song “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” by Andy Williams playing on the soundtrack over a montage of scenes of varying holiday cheer.  The song alone kind of conjures up all sorts of festive memories, and the film has some moments of hilarity in this opening sequence showing various people and family members struggling with difficult problems that the holidays present.  The sequence then ends rather oddly and cruelly, in a would-be moment that is supposed to make us laugh at its preposterousness but only serves to make us feel uneasy.  At the end of the montage a small, frail grandmother turns on her oven and puts her head in it.  Ho-ho.  It seemed like the film, which was beginning to develop some warm holiday spirit, completely degenerates into one that has no clue what it is.  Call me a conservative at heart, but I don’t seem to find much whimsicality or humor in seeing old women commit suicide at Christmas, but I digress. 

After the montage we then cut to Drew Latham (Ben Affleck) who is a big shot Ad-exec who is trying pitch his new idea for a product that is essentially spiked eggnog.  His theory is that the only way any sane family can get through Christmas with one another is by drinking eggnog that has alcohol in it.  I am not sure what is more pathetic - Drew’s own philosophy or the fact that the executives love the pitch.  After the successful day at the office Drew goes home and in an awkward moment offers his girlfriend (Jennifer Morrison) a trip to Fiji for the holidays.  She, of course, only wants to be with family during the season, but the Scrooge in Drew only wants to be away from anything resembling a family. 

The two abruptly break up and Drew now faces the terrible thought of being alone for the holidays.  I really don’t understand why his character, a man who is established as hating Christmas, would get so lonely at Christmas with the prospect of not being with any family members, yet the screenplay nevertheless sets the audience up for a development that, if we were to take it seriously, we too would be considered mentally ill.  Drew decides to go to his childhood home and purchase the services of the family that now resides there.  It’s not so amazing to think that a mentally unstable yuppie like Drew would want to do this, but the most remarkable thing is that the family agrees to it because, after all, Drew is paying them a quarter of a million dollars.

But wait, why would any family believe that a strange man outside their home, who apparently looks like a stalker, would agree to pay them?  Why would any family believe that the man has any money to offer them?  Okay, Drew does offer the family $250,000, but why would the family even remotely think that this twenty-something man is good for it?  Either they are the most witless people on the planet or are very trusting and hopeful.  Oh, then again, Drew does bring a lawyer over to write up and have everyone sign a contract, like that is the ultimate insurance policy.  I can’t think of any normal family on this very planet that would willfully go along with this plan, and SURVIVING CHRISTMAS is a film that is on auto-pilot by demonstrating Roger Ebert’s “Idiot Plot Syndrome” – basically, the only reason things happen to people in this film is because they are all idiots.   

We gradually get introduced to the family of the house.  We meet Tom Valco (the painfully underused James Gandolfini), the mother Christine (Catherine O’Hara) and the son Brian (Josh Zuckerman), a character that the screenplay thinks is funny by showing him endlessly downloading pornography on his computer in his room.  Of course, the family does not quite go along with the plan at first, and there is some obvious friction between them and Drew.  Actually, friction is a bit of a harsh term, seeing as everyone seems to not really kick this strange man out of their house at first sight.  The fact that they allow this freak into their home, give him a guided tour, and then become participants in his “let’s pretend” scheme gives ludicrousness a whole new sick definition.  Oh, and Drew, being the lunatic that he is, has made several clauses in the contract that the family must act like his own family, even allowing him to refer to Tom and Christine as his parents. 

However, a curve ball is thrown at Drew when the Valco’s cute daughter returns home for Christmas.  The daughter, Alicia (Christina Applegate), may be the only character in the film with enough sense, at least on a few occasions, to call the stunt insane.  Yet, she too becomes a participant, albeit a bit more unwillingly, and, as with all dumb screenplays allow, she starts to fall for the hapless Drew, when in reality it would take a Herculean effort for any modern, smart, intelligent woman to fall for this unstable freak. 

The screenplay is an endless journey into the miraculous and absurd.  I could not buy the fact the daughter starts to have feelings for this jerk.  I could not believe that Drew actually starts to have feelings not only for the girl, but for her family as well, so much that he is willing to help save the Valco’s marriage before it crumbles.  I also did not invest in one of the film’s most inane scenes where his old girlfriend and her parents come to visit Drew and his “family”, not realizing that, of course, they are a family that is rented.  This eventually culminates in a couple of would-be funny moments where the girlfriend and her family think that Drew is committing incest with his “sister”, which in itself is not humorous.  There is also another ridiculous scene where Drew tries to curb favour with Alicia by recreating a cherished holiday memory that comes across more as creepier then sensitive and caring. 

This film has too many identities for its own good.  It wants to kind of shock us with its somewhat dark comedy and then tries to gloss over that with some insipid and manufactured moments of corny sentimentality.  No more is this clear than with the character of Drew, who to any sensible person with a brain in their head would realize, only after a few minutes into the film, deserves to be placed in a straight jacket.  The film is shameless in its handling of this character.  Realistically, he’s nothing more than a mentally deranged stalker and kidnapper, but the screenplay desperately tries to make this a silly lug a man with a heart of gold. 

This is not helped by Affleck’s terrible performance, one where he comes across more as a gross, off-putting caricature than a real person.  Instead of playing the role somewhat straight and working with his own innate charm and likeability, Affleck overplays everything so broadly that he makes an average Adam Sandler character seem stable and intelligent.  Affleck’s Drew is zany, bugged eyed, and pompously Jar Jar Binks annoying all the way through.  The film is depressing in how it takes an intelligent and thoughtful actor and breaks him down to play a role as dumb as possible without any appeal.  Benny, you are great at playing smart and introspective people in the movies, but watching SURVIVING CHRISTMAS is like seeing you being forced at gunpoint to play a role as broad and stupid as possible when, deep down, you can sense that you would have never gone that way in a million years. 

SURVIVING CHRISTMAS is a terrible mess of a film.  Its inconsistent tone is unflattering (you either have to be a full-on dark comedy or not, there is not happy medium) and the film is populated by a story that dives into one implausibility after the other.  The characters are lifeless and distant (only Applegate comes across as the most grounded and approachable) and the laughs are so flat I felt listless and lethargic just sitting through its 90 minutes.  It has been said, by the actors' own admission, that there was not a usable and completed script for the film when they were making it.  That fact alone speaks volumes of this film, which is so aimless and meanders all over the map to create one dramatic absurdity to the next.  The emotions are flat and false, the sentimentality awkward and stilted, and the comedy is so amateurish and dumb that even the worst TV sitcom feels more enlightening by comparison.  SURVIVING CHRISTMAS is embarrassingly awful, not to mention the fact that it's aptly titled;  you’ll need a lot of endurance to sit though it, not to mention a lot of spiked eggnog.



This film sets a new cinematic record as the fastest film to go to home video directly from its theatrical release, an amazingly sparse nine week span.

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