Surviving Christmas

Drew Latham (Ben Affleck) is a filthy rich marketing executive who dreams of jetting off to Fiji with his girlfriend (Jennifer Morrison). When she wants to spend time with her family, Drew decides to reexamine his unhappy life, which brings him to the doorstep of his old childhood home. The Valcos (James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Josh Zuckerman, and Christina Applegate) live there now, and they are not thrilled about letting Drew revisit his past in their home. After an offer of $250,000 is made, the Valcos immediately agree to act as Drew’s family for the holidays, which tests their patience, sanity, and yuletide cheer as they watch Drew act out his every holiday whim.

While an odd early entry into the 2004 holiday festivities, “Surviving Christmas” sets just the right tone for the kickoff to the season of giving. In this case, “Christmas” gives laughs; lots of them, and it comes ready to play with a darker tone than, say, “Christmas Vacation,” which this film emulates in all the right ways. Directed by Mike Mitchell (“Deuce Bigalow”), “Christmas” is a fairly standard offering complete with out-of-control mountain sledding, increasingly violent snowball fights, gaudy Christmas tree jokes, and a Ben Affleck and James Gandolfini duet. But “Christmas” is directed with a slightly mischievous grin, and rarely turns down an opportunity for humor. Mitchell isn’t a comedy craftsman, and his cast doesn’t exactly inspire the greatest of confidence, but “Christmas,” against all odds, is frequently hilarious.

For “Christmas” to be any source of laughs, many audience members will need to move past their fear of Ben Affleck. Coming off a career high performance in Kevin Smith’s criminally underrated “Jersey Girl,” Affleck appears to be treating “Christmas” as some sort of vacation, for this is the loosest onscreen I have even seen him. A gifted comedian, Affleck gets to show off his goofier side to a great degree in the picture, and the results are stronger than I assume most people expect from the maligned actor. It helps to be backed up by the likes of comedy ace Catherine O’Hara (priceless as a dumpy suburban wife turned internet porn star), and to a lesser degree by one-note tough guy James Gandolfini (a good note, but still the same note). The entire cast comes to “Christmas” with an eagerness to be silly, and it shows clearly and often uproariously in the film.

This being a holiday-themed film as well as a major studio production, “Christmas” eventually heads down a road of syrupy, warm-hearted scripting, laboriously meant to hug the audience when the film has been so insistent on tickling up until this point. It’s a rather blatant ploy to latch on to peoples’ emotions, and frankly, it stops the film dead. Somewhere Mitchell forgot that his holiday film wasn’t about warm cups of cider and gingerbread cookies. Heavens, the movie opens with an elderly lady sticking her head into an oven in a fit of holiday depression (a better joke than it sounds). “Surviving Christmas” is a much better comedy than a heart-tugger on the meaning of the holidays. It’s funny up until a certain point, but pretty darn funny when it wants to be.

Rating: B+
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