Surviving Christmas / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
What is it about Ben Affleck that the media, and in particular, movie critics, hates so much? I often wonder if Affleck at some point made abusive or vile off the record comments about the movie reviewing profession as a whole. Did he fuck Harry Knowles’ mom or Roger Ebert’s wife? Has he made off with Stephen Holden’s children? How else can you explain why critics go so rabidly after a man whose movies are no worse or better than the majority of today’s leading men? After all, when is the last time Bruce Willis had a bona fide hit? Or Leonardo DiCaprio? Nicolas Cage? Brad Pitt? The Fast and the Furious and its sequel were worse than 100 Paychecks, yet no one shits all over Paul Walker or Vin Diesel with the same intensity they reserve for Ben Affleck. Why can’t critics leave Affleck alone for a while, and shift their hatred toward Colin Farrell, whose off-screen persona seems every bit as grotesque as the consistently mediocre movies he churns out?
The reviews for Surviving Christmas are no less menacing, with the New York Times leading the way, attacking Affleck personally for his “cocky petulance” and “bullying frat boy swagger”; the same qualities, it seems to me, which got our President elected. The critics seem to be likening Affleck’s smug, self-entitled, jackass of a character in Surviving Christmas to Affleck himself, which is not only an unfair assessment of the actor, but laziness on the reviewers’ parts; certainly, I’ve had contempt for much of what Hollywood puts out these days (see, for instance, Wimbledon or First Daughter), but I don’t stoop to personal attacks when an actor portrays a stupid character.
If the critics could get over their loathing of Affleck, they might recognize that Surviving Christmas isn’t an altogether bad movie. Perhaps I give Affleck too much credit, but I thought his overacting was delicious self-parody; the shark-like grin and manic demeanor reminded me of the Ben Stiller school of acting, without all the tiresome self-hatred, and his delivery often captured the same wonder of the hysterical pound-you-over-the-goddamn-head-with-a-2x4 exaggerated yelling of Adam Sandler. There is no subtlety in his performance, but then again, there is nothing subtle about the miseries of the Holiday season, a Surviving Christmas theme captured hilariously in a scene during the opening credits when a little old lady about to bake frowning gingerbread men opts, instead, to stick her own head in the oven.
In the movie, Affleck plays Drew Lathem, a smug, mostly unlikable millionaire ad executive, who pitches alcoholic eggnog (“10 percent alcohol by volume”) as the perfect antidote to spending endless hours with your family during the holidays. After his vapid girlfriend breaks up with him because he wants to spend Christmas in Fiji with her instead of with his family, Drew seeks the help of a therapist (the sorely underappreciated Stephen Root) who tells him to revisit a place that reminds him of childhood. Lethem promptly hails a cab and returns to the small brick house in suburban Illinois where he was raised. Once there, he finds that the Valco family now owns the house, and offers them $250,000 to let him experience a true family Christmas.
James Gandolfini, playing Tom Valco, puts in an adequate performance as the family patriarch, but Catherine O’Hara, as Tom’s wife, brings some caustic zest to her character. In fact, the entire cast seems to understand that they’re stuck with a mediocre script, but they’re unwilling to let that daunt them. Instead, they ham it up while delivering middling insults and often ludicrously trite lines with a madcap fervor. Affleck’s over-the-top performance, in particular, reminded me of a Jimmy Fallon “SNL” skit — he seems like he’s trying very hard to successfully contain his own laughter, and it’s difficult for the audience not to want to laugh along with him.
The movie is mostly a wicked examination of all that is wrong with Christmas, but it does occasionally drift into Hallmarkian moments that defy and confuse the movie’s overall tone. Surviving Christmas might have been better served with a more vulgar and mean-spirited script; unfortunately, it’s back-loaded with enough saccharine to keep it out of the black comedy genre. Instead, it falls into predictable romantic comedy territory, once Drew and Alicia Valco (Christina Applegate) begin to hit it off. Still, Surviving Christmas is a pleasant, darkly cute package to kick off the pre-holiday season, with some surprisingly effective screwball moments and the occasional outrageously funny line.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.