One of the new trends in Hollywood is the cynical Christmas movie, “Christmas noir” as it were, a take on yuletide entertainment that abandons glee and merriment in favor of deep dark cynicism. The trend began last year with Bad Santa, a film whose very title had protesters swarming. Later this year, Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis “skip” Christmas in Christmas with the Kranks. And somewhere around the middle is Surviving Christmas, an offensive, unfunny lump of coal masquerading as a charming stocking-stuffer. I’m starting to think this is the work of the Grinch.
Ben Affleck plays Drew Latham, a suave, swaggering ad man with good looks, a swanky apartment, and an attractive girlfriend. The essential element missing from all this is a family to share himself with. Worse, Drew’s girlfriend, Missy (Jennifer Morrison) desperately wants to meet her boyfriend’s family. Because Drew always keeps his origins a mystery, she leaves him. Facing another Christmas alone, he makes his way back to his childhood home to reminiscence about the holidays of his youth. What he finds is a new family living there, and they don’t take too kindly to his standing out on their front yard hugging the trees.
Enter Tom Valco (James Gandolfini), the owner of the house, who makes short work of Drew by bashing him over the head with a shovel. When Drew awakens, he finds himself inside the Valco home and makes Tom a deal: $250,000 in exchange for letting him spend Christmas there and pretending to be part of the family, supposedly for the sake of reliving his childhood.
This sitcom premise is made worse by the boorish behavior of most of the characters: Tom gives into “selling” his family within seconds of the proposal, as does his wife (Catherine O’Hara); whatever Drew says goes, even if it upsets their chronically masturbating young son (Josh Zuckerman). Drew spends most of the film not caring about the people he’s supposed to be pretending to care about, forcing Tom to wear a Santa hat and sing carols against his will. Ah, nothing like being forced into the holiday spirit. At no point are any of these situations funny, just uncomfortable. The sitcom quality degenerates into decades-old clichés, leading to situations like “the surprise ex-girlfriend visit” when Drew realizes Missy tracked him down to the Valco residence.
The characters actions and motives are always hazy. Why would Tom hit Drew in the head with a shovel, drag him into his house, and then wait for him to wake up? He could have called the police and avoided this disaster. Why would Tom need the money so badly? Living in a large house in the middle of Chicago’s suburbs, it’s never made clear why he buys into this plan so quickly. Sure, he buys himself a nice vintage car, but he should have more motivation for accepting this madness: a vacation, opening a business, something. Instead, the viewer can only assume that Tom would take any opportunity to get his hands on money.
Gandolfini, who has avoided mimicking his role on “The Sopranos” in films like The Mexican and The Last Castle, finally falls into the trap I always feared he would. Tom Valco is Tony Soprano with a beard and a lumberjack hat, complete with the hand gestures, vicious threats, and slovenly attitude that have won him three Emmys. There is nothing fresh about this character, and even if you never saw “The Sopranos,” the lummoxy killjoy is nothing new for the holiday genre.
Affleck and O’Hara (one of the most underrated comic actresses ever) are the only members of the “family” having any real fun. Affleck is cheerfully optimistic, blissfully unaware, and charmingly naive. His jovial nature makes the more uncomfortable moments less uncomfortable. And O’ Hara lets her straight-faced responses to the insanity show how numbed she is by this strange situation.
But the message behind the film seems to be that emotional train wrecks can make good holiday company, or that you can put a price tag on anything or anyone. Whatever. Surviving Christmas fails as a dark comedy because it’s not all that dark and not good-hearted enough to be heart-warming. Maybe the producers brought this movie out more than two months before Christmas to prevent themselves from spoiling it.