The latest Ben Affleck flop to reach theaters, "Surviving Christmas" is a mildly entertaining comedy that never quite clicks. Dumped by Dreamworks in October, long before anyone was interested in Christmas movies, the kiss of death seemed to have already been given to this film for no apparent reason. It's not great, but it's harmless fun.
Affleck stars as an obnoxious millionaire who discovers that once again he's going to be alone on Christmas. So, he does what any obnoxious millionaire would do - he returns to the house where he grew up, offers the working class family that lives there $250,000 to provide holiday cheer until midnight on Christmas Day and forces them to act like his real family. The family, consisting of James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Josh Zuckerman and Christina Applegate, immediately realize just how crazy he is, but $250,000 is more than enough to overcome their differences... or so they think.
Affleck thrives in this kind of movie. He may not make a very good action hero, nor is he always great in romantic comedies, but if there is one role he can do, it is an obnoxious, carefree millionaire. While his character is hard to like at times, and seemingly psychotic, Affleck's over-the-top and crazy performance works perfectly. Matched against the tough guy humor of Gandolfini, the bored look of Zuckerman and the disgusted expressions of O'Hara, director Mike Mitchell assembled the perfect cast.
Still, the movie isn't anything too special. One reason why Dreamworks decided to release "Surviving Christmas" earlier in the year is because it hovers on the verge of being a black comedy. Before Gandolfini and Affleck have even exchanged words for the first time, Gandolfini has knocked Affleck unconscious with a snow shovel (of course, this makes absolutely no sense). Zuckerman's character discovers his mother in a rather precarious pose on the Internet, and there are even a few incest jokes. The problem is, 95 percent of "Surviving Christmas" is completely harmless, which means the movie isn't dark enough to categorize as black comedy, but not quite family friendly, either. The writers clearly wanted to achieve both, but instead they pull off neither.
The biggest inconsistencies come in the third act, which is notably different from the first two. The first two are fairly entertaining, featuring some jokes that fall flat but some that hit the roof. Affleck is insane for much of the movie and Gandolfini is there to give him the timeless, vacant stare. However, in the third act, the movie turns into a minor romantic comedy as Affleck vies for Applegate's affection despite his inability to realize what she's really interested in. Suddenly, Affleck becomes aware of what he's done to this family and he becomes nice and likable. His change of character is almost jarring.
It would have been interesting to see this movie from the family's point of view instead of focusing on Affleck. The movie might have worked better had this struggling family accepted an eccentric millionaire into their home for the holiday without introducing the millionaire first. The result may have been a more consistent story.
Still, "Surviving Christmas" is not nearly as bad as other critics made it out to be. It's not a great movie, and only a marginally good one, but it has enough to carry itself for a short 90 minutes. After J-Lo and "Gigli," Affleck is the latest star to fall victim to his own success and critics seem to enjoy feeding on him like ravenous piranhas. "Surviving Christmas" is a fun little movie that is what it is because of the man everyone loves to hate.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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