In what is intended to be one of the most revealing and touching scenes in “Surviving Christmas,” the main character turns a lovely gesture into a crass, garish, and cringe-inducing display. Take away the revealing and touching part, and you’ve pretty much got a description of the movie itself.
After an opening montage of Yuletide misery concluding with a sweet grandmotherly woman putting frowns on her gingerbread men and then sticking her head on the oven (funny, huh?), we meet Drew (Ben Affleck), a wealthy advertising executive. He is pitching a new campaign for spiked eggnog and the theme he proposes is that the best way to get through the holidays is to have everyone in the family a little shnockered. And the client goes for it! Funny, huh? Um, no.
Oh yes, it’s that kind of movie. Failed attempts at humor land with a crash on top of failed attempts at plot.
Drew’s girlfriend dumps him because he has never introduced her to his family and wants to go to Fiji for Christmas. Horrified at the thought of being alone on Christmas, he offers the family now living in his childhood home a quarter of a million dollars if they will pretend to be his family through Christmas.
This idea of a spoiled young man hiring a family worked poorly in Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star and it works just as poorly here. The family is headed by the unhappily married Tom (Gandolfini) and Christine (Catherine O’Hara). Their son Brian spends all his time in his room surfing the internet for porn.
Their daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate) is horrified to find her family rented out for the season and refuses to participate. Then we have a long, inexorable, almost unendurable slog through the “aw” moments when everyone starts to develop warm feelings for everyone else and the “oops” moments when the former girlfriend with the stuffy family gets his expensive gift and thinks she will drop in on Drew to start things up again. Oh, yeah, Drew gives Christine a makeover with a photo shoot and the pictures turn up on Brian’s favorite porn site. And oh, the lack of hilarity when the actor Drew hires to play his grandfather sends his understudy. And then there is the painful attempt at humor in having Drew’s girlfriend see him kissing Alicia and thinking it’s his sister. And then the big reveal which pretty much undercuts the entire premise of the movie, not that anyone should devote the brain cells necessary to attempt to resolve the inconsistency.
James Gandolfini does his best to pretend he is not actually in this slack, dumb, boring, and charmless movie by hiding behind a beard. The rest of the cast look as though they wish they had thought of it, too. They all have that bleak, glazed, “maybe, with any luck, this will go straight to video and never be heard from again” look. As for me, I sat there with a bleak, glazed, “maybe this movie will be over and I can go home and try to keep people from going to see it” look. Surviving Christmas? All I wanted was to survive the movie.
Parents should know that the movie includes jokes about incest, pornography, cross-dressing, masturbation, Sonny Bono’s death, and marijuana. Characters drink and smoke and use some strong language. There is comic peril and violence, including smacking someone with a shovel. The happy families Drew sees on Christmas include a gay couple, but this is intended to be humorous, not inclusive.
Families who see this movie should talk about how difficult it can be to try to measure our own relatives by the idealized families portrayed in holiday movies and television shows.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other dysfunctional family holiday movies like The Ref, Home for the Holidays (both with some mature material), Home Alone (also starring O’Hara), and of course the classic A Christmas Story.