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Dustin Putman



Dustin's Review

Surviving Christmas (2004)
2 Stars

Directed by Mike Mitchell
Cast: Ben Affleck, Christina Applegate, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Josh Zuckerman, Bill Macy, Jennifer Morrison, Udo Kier, David Selby, Stephanie Faracy, Stephen Root, Sy Richardson, Tangie Ambrose
2004 – 92 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for sexual content, language, and a brief drug reference).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 20, 2004.

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 date—there are a number of shrewdly big laughs to be had—but 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 writers—Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (2001's "Josie and the Pussycats") & Jeffrey Ventimilia and Joshua Sternin—was 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 film—and the laughs—right 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.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman