Ben Affleck stars as Drew Latham, a clueless, wealthy and overly excitable executive who suddenly longs for his childhood Chicago home at Christmastime. Since his friends are all with their families and he’s alienated his society girlfriend, he pays the blue collar people living in his old house $250,000 to pretend to be his family for the holidays.
Said family is comprised of decent actors stuck in a stinker—James Gandolfini as the gruff dad; Catherine O’Hara as the depressed mom; Christina Applegate as the outraged sister/eventual love interest; and Josh Zuckerman as the teen boy with a computer and a porn habit.
Naturally, things don’t go smoothly for the substitute family while they’re trying to manufacture mounds of Christmas cheer to earn their big payday. As Drew drags them through the holiday rituals—Christmas shopping, getting the tree, even a special Christmas prayer—hoping to recreate moments of seasonal bliss he never had, the family gradually begins to unravel under the unfunny strain.
Though Mr. and Mrs. Valco consider splitting up, they eventually decide to stay together and seem to truly care for each other. Drew seemingly chooses to forgive those he loved who have abandoned him.
Despite the fact that it’s Christmas, very little mention is made of Christ—or for that matter, anything spiritual. The family is, however, forced by Drew to join hands for a prayer he scripted for Brian to read before Christmas dinner. And a living nativity scene is briefly spotlighted.
The parents seem unconcerned about Brian’s computer porn habit, of which we see PG-13 glimpses of women in revealing getups and titles such as “Three-Ways” and “Middle-Aged Hotties.” In order to spice up her marriage, Christine allows herself to be photographed in tight leather outfits by a professional fashion photographer while Warrant’s explicit “Cherry Pie” plays on the soundtrack. Later, Brian sees a pornographic image from the shoot online.
Both actors hired to play Drew’s fake grandfather turn out to be dirty old men, one talking about hookers with “big cans” and seeing girls’ “goodies.” The other gets too friendly with Christine while playing her father. A passionate kiss between Alicia and Drew is assumed to be incestuous by characters who don’t know the two aren’t siblings. And a gay couple kisses.
Tom hits Drew over the head with a shovel, knocking him out. Drew blasts Brian with snowballs, hitting him (hard) in the crotch and face. An angry Alicia hurls a Christmas gift at Drew. Brian smashes his computer monitor. Slapstick tomfoolery includes an out-of-control toboggan ride, a slide down a banister and a fall from a ladder while hanging Christmas lights.
The s-word is heard a half-dozen times. (When Brian uses it in front of his parents, they don’t even blink.) God’s name is used as a swear word more than a dozen times. Those words are joined by “h—,” “a–” and “b–ch.”
Beer. Wine. Eggnog. Most of the characters drink. And Drew launches an advertising campaign for spiked eggnog that promises to help drinkers get through the holidays. One of the “grandfathers” is seen smoking (someone asks if it’s pot).
During a montage showing people growing increasingly frustrated with the Christmas season, a grandmotherly woman who seems prepared to bake Christmas cookies instead sticks her head in the oven. In order to cover a lie, Drew talks about his “winky” being exceptionally long when he was a baby.
I’m guessing many of my fellow film critics and headline writers will find ways to use the title of this painfully crass and joyless movie to cleverly bash the film. I’ll try to resist the urge to join in. Okay, I give up.
“Survivors of Surviving Christmas may find themselves suffering from post-pathetic film syndrome.” “Can Ben Affleck’s career survive another one like this?” “Would somebody please vote me off the Surviving Christmas island!” Any Christmas movie that features the mom from Home Alone participating in a porn shoot—images of which are later seen on the Web by her teenage son—deserves every bit of sarcasm it gets. It’s so bad, Santa has decided to replace lumps of coal with Surviving Christmas tickets in the stockings of especially bad children.
You can feel the film reaching for a zaniness it never grasps, aspiring to become a Christmas Vacation or What About Bob? Instead, it’s a vulgar, uninspired effort destined to be forgotten before Thanksgiving. Affleck is a big part of the problem. Though he gamely tries to channel his inner Bill Murray, it turns out he doesn’t really have one, missing lovable kooky and succeeding mostly in being annoying. And Mike Mitchell’s Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo-inspired direction doesn’t help.
They do get it right on one basic assumption—all that holiday togetherness can expose the weaknesses of our bonds. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Families willing to make the effort can use the Christmas season as an opportunity to strengthen those ties. Although (in some circles) it’s unpopular to acknowledge, families who focus together on the gift of Jesus find Christmas to be a high point of the year, not an exercise in survival.
To get a head start, kick off your holiday season by not watching Surviving Christmas together. As Brian says after destroying his computer due to the trauma of seeing his mom’s leather-clad image, “Some things cannot be unseen.”