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Surviving Christmas

On paper, this looks great. Dark comedies about the yuletide season always find some sort of cache, and often turn out brilliantly. (See Bad Santa or The Ref.) Throw in a bunch of quirky, under-appreciated actors, direction from one of the guys that worked on Greg the Bunny and a screenplay full of savage little asides like "I hate to drink a man's liquor when he so obviously needs it."

Okay, so some people despise Ben Affleck on film, in tabloids or at political conventions. But I stand by my belief that he plays arrogant schmucks with a rare élan, especially when put into a comedy, a younger version of Alec Baldwin. (Yep, he's stealing Baldwin's moves.)

What gets lost in Surviving Christmas, however, is a willingness to let the dark comedy run free. Instead, director Mike Mitchell wants us to sympathize with Affleck's obnoxious yuppie Drew Latham. When we finally get to the heart of Drew's hurt, it's not only predictable but cloying. Face it; we want the guy to get some sort of comeuppance, not every dream come true.

Because the movie wants some sort of mystery to Drew's behavior, it forces the situation past the breaking point to have people just accept whatever the guy wants. In a nutshell, he goes to what he claims was his childhood home to perform a cleansing ritual of letting go of his past hurts on Christmas. While burning a small piece of paper, he gets clocked by a snow shovel, wielded by the current owner, Tom Valco (James Gandolfini).

Maybe it's the blow to the head, but when Drew awakens he decides that the real best way to resolve his loneliness issues over the holidays is to go back to that perfect moment in his past when Christmas actually meant something. Except it's all false.

Not in a "he's conning these guys for fun" kind of way, not in a "the script doesn't play fair" kind of way, but in a "hey, it just doesn't add up in any way" kind of way.

Bizarrely, all character motivations get shoved into the third act, where they come as cheap attempts at pathos instead of natural moments. Even Drew's manic desire for the perfect Christmas tree, carol, snowball fight, whatever, feels inconsistent. Sometimes the family goes along begrudgingly; sometimes they fight it. Never does it feel funny, no matter how much Affleck rolls his eyes and grins insanely.

A couple of scenes have potential. Counter to Affleck's performance theory, they work when he underplays. In one, he provides the family with a script for how he would like the Christmas dynamic to work out. Annoyed that they have an adult daughter (Christina Applegate), which doesn't fit into his preconceptions, Drew relegates her to the role of Latina maid Consuela. Any good will generated by that scene gets dropped as quickly as the idea that he treats her like a maid.

Because, of course, she must actually be the love interest. They have a cutesy scene where they get devastating colds for one day, but nothing so bad that can't be cured by a cup of tea, blankets and watching specials on the television. By the next day, they're happily bounding about.

And yet director Mitchell clearly has a sense of twisted comedy. There's all those asides, so perfectly delivered. Keen casting keeps giving hope, as vets like Bill Macy and Sy Richardson (from Repo Man) show up. Even Tom Kenney makes a brief appearance doing a bit of fussy schtick in the beginning of the film. False promises all.

Ben, Ben, Ben. I had such hopes for you. And now, I have yet another movie that I think just might be a cool action figure and ends up being socks.


Derek McCaw

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