The most offensive thing about “Surviving Christmas,” of course, is that it was released two months before Christmas — heck, nine days before HALLOWEEN, even. But watching it, I suspect it wouldn’t produce an ounce of holiday cheer even if it were released on the day itself and you watched it with Santa Claus sitting next to you funneling egg nog down your throat.
This is a rancid, wrong-headed comedy that passes the point of plausibility about 10 minutes in and never looks back. It’s pre-fabricated, factory-made drivel that actually makes less sense as it goes, as if it’s playing a game, trying to see how much worse it can get. By the end, it’s barely even a movie anymore. It’s some kind of pageant of horror.
It’s about a slimy, materialistic man named Drew Latham (Ben Affleck) who needs to learn the True Meaning of Christmas and who, as you have already guessed from watching 1,000 other films about slimy, materialistic men who need to learn the True Meaning of Christmas, works as an advertising executive. His latest idea is to market a brand of alcoholic egg nog by telling customers that drinking it is the only way they’ll be able to handle holidays with their families. He’s that sort of guy.
He hates his own family passionately, for reasons that are withheld from us until the third act, so they can be revealed during a Tender Moment. But in a moment of wistfulness, he returns to his childhood home in suburban Chicago, where the Valco family now lives, and pays them $250,000 to be his family for the holidays, to give him a regular old-fashioned family Christmas with all the trimmings. He moves into his old room (displacing the porn-addicted teenage son), tells the daughter that since he didn’t have a sister, she needs to be the South American maid, and hires an actor to be his grandfather, to make the picture complete.
The film was directed by Mike Mitchell, whose major credit before this was “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” — which is funny, because “Surviving Christmas” feels like it should have starred someone like Rob Schneider or Adam Sandler. A premise this untenable needs more wackiness applied to its execution if it’s to have any hope of succeeding. I doubt it would have been good anyway — note that David Spade starred in the similarly themed “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” and had little success with it — but at least it would have had a fighting chance. Ben Affleck gets the sleazy thing down, with that toothy, insincere grin of his, but he’s unable to balance it with the vulnerability and inner goodness that it needs. Instead of being someone we love to hate, he’s just someone we hate.
The Valcos are played by James Gandolfini and Catherine O’Hara, both well-cast, with particular credit going to O’Hara for bringing her characteristic dry wit and commitment to the role of a tired, bored housewife. Christina Applegate does what she can as the college-age daughter, too, though the eventual romance between hers and Affleck’s characters is the very definition of obligatory.
Four writers are credited. Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont wrote “A Very Brady Sequel,” “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas” and “Josie and the Pussycats” — all TV-to-film adaptations, which explains why “Surviving Christmas” feels so much like a sitcom (even down to the last-minute-dinner-guests-who-are-uptight-and-won’t-stand-for-any-shenanigans plot device). Their co-writers are Jeffrey Ventimilia and Joshua Sternin, who previously wrote for several different sitcoms, which explains why — well, see my previous note.
The comedy is weak, usually on the order of Drew telling Mr. Valco how to behave and Mr. Valco wanting to kill Drew but resisting because he wants the $250,000. There is potential for genuine sentiment in the scene where Drew offers to buy the dowdy Mrs. Valco a makeover, but it’s ruined when what she gets instead of a lovely new hairdo and some makeup styling is a whore-style makeover, complete with whore-style photo shoot by one of Drew’s photographer buddies. The film can’t decide whether it wants to be dark or merry, and it bungles nearly every attempt at doing either. It has been a year brimming with bad comedies — “White Chicks,” “Baby Geniuses 2,” “Without a Paddle” — but this one competes admirably with all of them.
D- (1 hr., 31 min.; )