“Surviving Christmas” is one more nail in the already well-sealed coffin of Ben Affleck’s career. Yet, even after the abomination that was “Gigli” and the subsequent financial and artistic failure of Kevin Smith’s “Jersey Girl,” he just won’t go away. But despite the agony of watching a once-promising young actor and Academy Award-winner perpetuate his self-destruction, “Christmas” is the sort of stupid, forgettable movie that you can almost enjoy (though you wish you didn’t). It provides the same sort of guilty pleasure as the ridiculous “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo,” also directed by Mike Mitchell.
Affleck’s character, Drew Latham, begins the film painfully hollow and annoying. Affleck desperately attempts to play the cliched role of the tortured executive with a heart of gold — which has been done much more skillfully by nearly every actor who has attempted such the part. He flops around, showing no emotion besides pouting (which is not a real emotion anyway). In fact, it’s hard to tell where Affleck’s acting flaws end and Drew’s idiosyncrasies begin.
In the first 10 minutes, the character is so similar to a child with ADD that it is impossible to sympathize with him when he’s abandoned by his Cartier-obsessed girlfriend Missy (Jennifer Morrison) right before Christmas. Once the other major characters begin to appear, however, Affleck’s abysmally ridiculous performance improves slightly and is almost concealed by a generally amusing and likable supporting cast.
But what makes this movie tolerable — to the extent that it is tolerable — isn’t the acting, but the stupid and comfortable gags. Even though nearly every joke in the movie relies on standard sitcom gags — unfortunate coincidences or people getting hit in the face with snowballs — it is often embarrassingly difficult to choke back laughter after the film gets going.
As difficult as Affleck’s downfall may be to watch, its almost as bad to see “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini in such a mindless film. He plays Tom Valco, a bearded, blue-collar, tough-guy father who for some reason allows the friendless Drew to celebrate the holidays with his family.
The wealthy Drew rekindles his childhood memories by renting out the family — who coincidentally live in his childhood home. In order to be paid for the inconvenience, the family must meet Drew’s inane demands, behaving like the Cleavers in order to get their money at 11:59 p.m. on Christmas Day.
Predictably, mayhem ensues! Marriages are torn asunder, Internet porn is downloaded, the stakes of their absurd deal are raised, and the whole future of the Valco family is put in jeopardy. At least the audience is treated to Tony Soprano in a Santa hat.
Christina Applegate, who has hardly been seen since “Married With Children,” plays Drew’s rented sister Alicia, a “smart and sexy” city girl (according to Drew) who returns home for the holidays. Upon entering the house, Alicia is told that she doesn’t fit into Drew’s perfect family and must instead play the part of Consuelo, the family’s maid. Applegate’s charming humor is surprisingly redeeming and is at least as entertaining as her not-so-subtle plastic surgery and overwaxed eyebrows.
Another amusing performance is given by Katherine O’Hara, most memorable as the mom from “Home Alone” (if not cult favorite “Waiting for Guffman”). She plays the frustrated suburban parent better than Gandolfini, who isn’t bad himself, and doesn’t look bad in thigh-high, red pleather boots after all these years.
There are glaring plot holes, even for a storyline that deserves such little attention. Why doesn’t anyone ever go to work? Why does Tom frequently wear a mechanic’s jumpsuit and have grimy hands? How did Drew make so much as an ad-man if he now promotes pre-spiked eggnog?
Despite its narrative flaws, credit must at least go to the dedication of the film’s sound technicians. Without fail, they play the “squeaky step” effect every single time someone walks up the stairs, even in the middle of a serious conversation (like when Drew is dumped for the second time).
The movie is in no way intellectually provoking, a good use of anyone’s acting talents, or worth the $10 it now costs to see a movie. But despite the fact that the humor of the movie relies solely on situation comedy, cheap gags, dropped Christmas ham and other sitcom fare, it is blessedly short and offers a few laughs if you can turn your brain off completely.