If you wanted to rent a family for any occasion, the Valcos of Surviving Christmas probably wouldn’t be your first choice. The gruff father yells at everyone and never cracks a smile; the mother looks perpetually bored; the teenage son spends most of his time in his room; and the grown-up daughter complains about everything. Nevertheless, a wealthy ad executive offers the Valcos $250,000 to be his family during the Christmas holidays -- with the condition that they help him capture the “yuletide glee” of his past. Why the Valcos? Because they reside in the house the executive lived in as a child.
In this early Christmas treat, Ben Affleck delivers a surprisingly on-target performance as Drew Latham, a man who thinks money and grandiose gestures are the answers to everything, Affleck endows this self-involved character with an underlying vulnerability that evoked my empathy even when his behavior seemed quite obnoxious. To me, this type of role fits Affleck better than all those action heroes he’s played in movies like Pearl Harbor, The Sum of All Fears and Daredevil. He seems more comfortable here and appears to be having a good time with his fellow actors.
Still, who wouldn’t have fun with the always amusing Catherine O’Hara (A Mighty Wind) and the immensely watchable James Gandolfini (The Sopranos, The Mexican)? In Surviving Christmas, they come across like a married couple in an Edward Albee version of The Honeymooners. Tom and Christine Valco have definitely lost that lovin’ feeling -- but, like everything else, Drew thinks money will solve their problem. After all, he needs everyone around him to be happy, or at least happy enough to pretend their happy so he can be happy.
As tough as Tom and Christine are, they’re pussycats compared to teenage Brian (Josh Zuckerman) and his cynical sister Alecia (Christina Applegate). Brian spends most of his time at the computer “studying” (he says). His “research” is more important to him than having a merry Christmas, at least until he discovers something “that should never be seen” concerning one member of his family. Alecia refuses to take part in Drew’s pretend game, but finally gets drawn in because she develops feelings for him -- and vice versa.
The film’s climax occurs when Drew’s snooty girlfriend (Jennifer Morrison) and her family pay a last-minute visit to the Valcos to meet Drew’s “family.” That’s when all of Drew’s plans come crashing down upon him and upon the Valcos. Drew, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, realizes he must change his ways in order to be a happy human being. Come to think of it, Drew emerges as Scrooge’s bizarro twin, a man determined to celebrate an old-fashioned family Christmas at any cost in contrast to Scrooge’s complete rejection of yuletide togetherness. Both stories show us the folly of extremes.
In a way, Surviving Christmas forces Christmas upon us just like Drew forced it on the Valcos. Here’s a movie released even before Halloween -- when many of us aren’t ready to think about everything we need to do before Christmas arrives. However, who wants to complain about watching people wrap presents (one man making as much a mess with them as I do), decorate a huge Christmas tree, sing carols (badly), and finally realize how much they care about each other -- no matter what time of year it is? Not me.
(Released by DreamWorks and rated “PG-13” for sexual content, language and brief drug reference.)