Surviving Christmas

US (2004) Dir. Mike Mitchell

I’d not heard of this film before and I literally found it by accident on TV. I wouldn’t have normally given it the time of day but for some reason it was on and I found myself going the distance with it, despite it starting a little before midnight. It seems it was a big flop when it was released in 2004, largely due its star Ben Affleck being on the outside of the media for some reason (his relationship with Jennifer Lopez perhaps?) and the reviews were frankly scathing and very uncharitable to say the least.

Affleck plays Drew Latham, a multi-millionaire advertising executive who due to a childhood grievance often goes way rather than spending Christmas alone. When he presents his girlfriend Missy (Jennifer Morrison) with tickets to Fiji, she balks at the idea of being away from her family at Christmas and walks out on Drew. Wanting to get over his Christmas problem, Drew consults a doctor (Stephen Root) who suggests he go to his family home, write down his grievances then burn the paper to exorcise these demons.

Drew arrives at his old family home in Illinois which is now owned by the Valcos, who welcome the visitor by knocking him out with a snow shovel! Seeing that the family unit of Tom (James Gandolfini), Christine (Catherine O’Hara) and their son Brian (Josh Zuckerman) have a cosy set up, Drew offers them $250,000 to let him stay at the house and they become his family for the Christmas period. They agree but the plan is thrown into chaos when eldest daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate) arrives to stay, immediately taking a dislike to Drew.

Credit where it is due, this is a refreshing twist on the Scrooge concept, with the miserable lead wanting to buy into Christmas instead of trying to shut it down for everyone – although that is ironically what Drew almost achieves. The problem is it that while the plot screams “comic farce” it merely ends up a farcical damp squib due to the predictable script and flimsy ideas which fail to capitalise on the comic potential of this ludicrous situation.

The characters are thinly drawn and clichéd, often changing their motives and personalities on a whim and not just because Drew is waving his wallet at them either. Despite being a high flying executive Drew is way too immature for the position he is in, and his “throw money at it” suggests this more than it does his arrogance. This becomes a plot point later on as he predictably tries to woo the ice cold Alicia, who resents such grandiose gestures while the superficial Missy is too easily won over by an expensive diamond bracelet.

The Valco family send equally ambiguous messages about their values, with Tom happy to accept Drew’s money, much to Christine’s horror, then refusing to comply with Drew’s every wish to accommodate his ideal family Christmas. Flitting between gruff and subservient, Tom then surprisingly drops a very personal bombshell on his unwanted paying guest whom he just moments earlier was threatening to beat up! Drew clumsily tries to help fix this situation for the Valcos leading to a pay off involving son Brian’s hobby of internet porn and a confidence boosting photo shoot Drew arranged for Christine, the execution of which is beset by horrid timing issues to ruin what little credibility it didn’t have in the first place.

Elsewhere the pairing of Drew and Alicia, which is telegraphed from the moment she appears on screen peaks and troughs way too quickly and too frequently, a result of being an additional  sub plot being crammed into a film already full of them. Another character thrown into the mix is a local actor who is drafted in to play Drew’s grandfather, known as Doo-dah (Bill Macy). His participation appears to be solely to set up a third act gag where Doo-dah’s understudy shows up to fill the role – who just happens to be black!

I could go on about everything that is underwhelming and flaccid about this film but I’d be here all day. On the positive side, there are a couple of giggles to be found but nothing to split the sides. There is however a very gentle charm to be found which isn’t enough to sustain any good will towards it, although this doesn’t explain how it managed to draw me in for the duration. I suppose it was to see if it could resolve the issues with little reliance on typical hidebound Hollywood formula or if the usually reliable cast could lift this beyond mediocre.

On that last point the answer is “sort of”. I’ve not watched The Sopranos or really seen much of James Gandolfini but even I could tell he was somewhat posited in the “gravitas” role and to that extent he was fine choice to play Tom. Catherine O’Hara was called on to be the same kooky type she is known for in Christopher Guest films so you know she will be committed here yet there is an air of resignation in places. Christina Applegate is pretty much as she is in every grown up post-Kelly Bundy role and Ben Affleck is typical pre-Argo Ben Affleck.

Director Mike Mitchell was known prior to this for TV cartoon shows and Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo which isn’t a title many would proudly display on their CV, let’s be frank. This then would explain the rather pedestrian and unadventurous way in which the film unfolds and how everything seems to stroll along without a care in the world. One can surmise that the intention was to create the next Christmas classic with this film but these lofty ambitions are far from met.

I do think that some critics have been unfair to this obviously flawed film but while Surviving Christmas is not a complete turkey it is far from being the festive treat it wants to be.