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Surviving Christmas

Starring Ben Affleck, James Gandolfini, Christina Applegate, and Catherine O'Hara; Bill Macy
Screenplay by Deborah Kaplan & Harry Elfont and Jeffrey Ventimilia & Josh Sternin; from a story by Deborah Kaplan & Harry Elfont
Directed by Mike Mitchell

IN SHORT: When it's funny it's very funny. When it's not, it's still an OK dateflick. [Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and a brief drug reference. 92 minutes]

A film that tries to balance bust-a-gut funny with warm and fuzzy is taking on a real burden. We're not ready to assign the "too many cooks" label to the four pair of hands it took to craft the script to Surviving Christmas, because when it's funny it is very funny -- in a sometimes obnoxious and embarrassing way, just failing to mine its comic moments the way sandhogs dig tunnels . . . Sorry. We spent 85 of 92 minutes sitting in front of a screaming baby whose mother wouldn't step out to change a diaper because, after all, she got to see the movie in advance for free. You might say that we survived a rather pungent xmas <g> and stick with the IN SHORT summary above.

Drew Latham (Ben Affleck) is your standard, filthy rich ad exec who has secretly planned the bestest Christmas for himself and his filthy rich A-List girlfriend Missie Vangilder (Jennifer Morrison): a first class jaunt to Fiji. Missie, as strange as it may seem, thinks the holiday should be spent with family -- she's never met Drew's -- and decides to wait out the opening of the presents thing at her family mansion. A distraught Drew tracks down Missie's shrink (Stephen Root) for guidance in how to handle the situation. The doc instructs the lad to write down all the grievances he feels, go to his favorite Christmas place, and burn the list. So Drew returns to Lincoln Wood, Illinois, and the house he grew up in. He is not welcomed with open arms by the Valco family that lives there -- Tom (James Gandolfini), his wife Christine (Catherine O'Hara) and teen son Brian (Josh Zuckerman) -- but that's something an on call lawyer and the writing of a very large check can fix.

Simply, Drew recreates the perfect Christmas family of his dreams, thanks to that six figure sum promised the Valcos and a smaller payment to a local actor (Bill Macy) to play Grandpa "Doo-Dah". Nothing could possibly wreck the perfect new old-time Christmas . . . until prodigal daughter Alicia Valco (Christina Applegate) walks through the door. Drew didn't have a sister, you see, and the presence of Alicia really gums things up. It also sets up one of the funniest plot devices in the script, made all the more funny by Alicia's refusal to play the game.

It's not just the check that Drew pays out. He also plays fairy godfather to the parental units with his generosity, including an extreme makeover and glamorous photo shoot for Mrs. Valco (and a nice cameo by Udo Kier as the dominating photog). We're dancing on thin ice telling you that much but y'all know the big story will come when Alicia takes a very different kind of look at Drew, just about the time that . . .

We hear the sound of cracking ice, so we'll stop. There are enough readers of this Site that love to try to figure everything out early who have already figured it out. That brings us to the downside of Surviving Christmas. The film doesn't let itself go "broad" enough, often enough, to have you busting your guts wide open. It does try to yield the warm fuzziness usually attained by classic Christmas movies which won't thrill the teenkids (all of whom would love to see a blissed out Affleck sitting cross legged amidst the rubble of the Valco home. This is not an Adam Sandler movie, kids. Get over it.) The best gags of all come at the very end, once an actor named Sy Richardson steps in to the story. We don't have to explain his part. It will be as clear as a black and white photo.

As for the choice of James Gandolfini as the harried husband, well, let's just say that viewers of The Sopranos are going to bring a lot of baggage into the theater. Gandolfini doesn't go anywhere near his Tony, but everyone will fill in the blanks once a very funny scene involving snowballs lays itself out.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Surviving Christmas, he would have paid . . .


Surviving Christmas is not a bad sit. A good hunk of its potential is realized but it won't go down as a classic. We did laugh enough rank this as a wee bit better than your average dateflick.

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