Review by Dustin Putman
2 stars out of 4
Releasing a Christmas comedy in the month of October makes about as
much sense as releasing 1998's "Halloween: H20" and 2002's "Halloween:
Resurrection" during the summer, and doesn't exactly signal much confidence
from its studio, in this case Dreamworks. Directed by Mike Mitchell
(1999's "Deuce Bigalo: Male Gigolo"), "Surviving Christmas" isn't
so bad that it deserves the death warrant of its release dateóthere
are a number of shrewdly big laughs to be hadóbut it also isn't exactly
a keeper in the annals of Yuletide cinema.
The premise isn't to be believed for a second, but it does have an
appealing and potentially marketable hook. Dumped by his materialistic
girlfriend, Missy (Jennifer Morrison), as the holidays approach, wealthy,
parentless ad executive Drew Latham (Ben Affleck) decides that what
he needs to reclaim warmth and joy in his life is a family for Christmas.
Tracking down his childhood home in an Illinois suburb, Drew offers
the family living there, including gruff father Tom (James Gandolfini),
underappreciated mother Christine (Catherine O'Hara), and porn-obsessed
teenage son Brian (Josh Zuckerman), $250,000 to take him in for the
holidays and treat him like a son. What he finds once they accept
is a family on the verge of a marital breakdown, and a grown visiting
daughter, Alicia (Christina Applegate), whose initial disdain for
Drew quickly turns to love. As Drew attempts to mend their problems
and win over Alicia, he is forced into assessing the emptiness in his own life.
A cross between 2000's "Meet the Parents" and 2003's "Dickie Roberts:
Former Child Star," "Surviving Christmas" is deceptive in its first
hour with its unexpected quick-witted humor. The laughs come fairly
frequently as Drew gets acquainted with his new family, going as far
as handing out Norman Rockwell-inspired scripts for them to follow,
and bringing them along for the traditional picking of the Christmas
tree and shopping for presents. Slowly but surely, trouble arises
when it becomes apparent that the screenplay, even under the pen of
four writersóDeborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (2001's "Josie and the
Pussycats") & Jeffrey Ventimilia and Joshua Sterninówas obviously
not ready to be put to film. The relationships between the characters
feel half-written and undernourished, therefore leaving no tangible
rooting interest in what happens to them, while the final thirty minutes
self-destruct in an insufferable attempt at screwball comedy when
Missy and her parents make an abrupt appearance and Drew must convincingly
pass Tom, Christine, Alicia, and Brian off as his real family.
On their own, the cast is strong and adept in their comic sensibilities,
but put together none of them seem to connect as an easygoing ensemble.
In a rare comedic performance, Ben Affleck (2003's "Paycheck") proves
why he steals the show when he hosts "Saturday Night Live," but his
Drew is a selfish brat who doesn't believably change into a better
person the way the film intends him to. As love interest Alicia, Christina
Applegate (2004's "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy") brightens
up her scenes as usual, but is saddled with a thinly drawn character
whose dislike for Drew turns to love for the sole reason that the
script demands it. It doesn't help that Affleck and Applegate hold
about as much chemistry as a burnt-out candle.
As worn-down mother Christine, Catherine O'Hara (2003's "A Mighty
Wind") is easily the standout, extracting big laughs out of her every
bravura line delivery and facial expression. Her unlikely glamour
shoot for a questionable photographer is the picture's highlight.
Like the leads, however, O'Hara and James Gandolfini (2001's "The
Mexican") aren't given anything of interest to do together, the emptiness
in their onscreen marriage flattening the key subplot in which they
learn to rekindle the love in their relationship.
Snow-filled and appropriately wintry, even if several scenes look
too much like a studio backlot, "Surviving Christmas" does a fine
job of personifying the title holiday. As a black comedy, the movie
doesn't have the courage of its convictions, wrapping up plot strands
and characters before the viewer has gotten a chance to know and care
about them. And, as mentioned, the dumbed-down developments in the
third act stop the filmóand the laughsóright in their tracks. For
a holiday feature about rediscovering one's humanity and appreciation
for those around them, there is no excuse for the aloof response with
which the appearance of the end credits holds. "Surviving Christmas"
has its respective merits, but this is one festive occasion that desperately
needed another rewrite.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman