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With: Ben Affleck, James Gandolfini, Christina Applegate, Catherine O'Hara, Bill Macy, Udo Kier, Stephen Root, Josh Zuckerman, Sy Richardson
Written by: Deobrah Kaplan, Harry Elfont, Jeffrey Ventimilia, Joshau Sternin
Directed by: Mike Mitchell
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, language and a brief drug reference
Running Time: 92
Date: 10/22/2004

Surviving Christmas (2004)

1/2 Star (out of 4)

No Survivors

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

How bad can a Christmas movie get? How about Jingle All the Way with Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or the $50 million flop Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)? What about the granddaddy of them all, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)? Forget them. We have a new champion, Surviving Christmas, easily the worst Christmas movie of all time, and a surefire contender for the worst film of 2004.

Surviving Christmas starts with a horrible, horrible performance by Ben Affleck as a soulless corporate advertising exec, Drew Latham. Someone must have told Affleck to ignore the rest of the character and to talk as fast as he could to make the sagging, lethargic plot seem like it was moving.

Drew's girlfriend dumps him just before Christmas. Faced with the prospect of spending the holidays alone, and with the advice of his ex-girlfriend's shrink, he visits his childhood home. Upon meeting the family that lives there now, he offers them $250,000 to let him stay for the holidays. The unhappy Valco family includes Tom (James Gandolfini), Christine (Catherine O'Hara), teenage Brian (Josh Zuckerman) and wayward daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate). In addition, Drew hires an actor to play a loving, doting old granddad, nicknamed Doo-Dah (Bill Macy).

Of course, earning this huge paycheck requires utter and complete humiliation on the part of the witless family. Drew forces them to do all kinds of kooky and unfunny things. Tom must wear a Santa hat, and they must install a gaudy Christmas tree that would light up Times Square. The film moves inexorably toward its inevitable conclusion, in which Drew and the family find the real Christmas spirit among their squabbling, and Drew and Alicia fall improbably in love with absolutely no chemistry or interest whatsoever.

The film tries desperately to shove stale jokes at us, not knowing whether it wants to be sweet or cynical. The opening title montage contains both kinds of jokes, establishing a tone of confusion and stupidity that the rest of the movie dutifully upholds. Probably the worst, most offensive and insulting joke comes when Doo-Dah can't work one evening and sends in an understudy who happens to be black.

Sprinkled in and among the dialogue is a huge collection of classic Christmas songs including Judy Garland's mournful "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from the masterpiece Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and these songs are so badly misused that their sentimental value may be rubbed out forever.

I've given Affleck the benefit of the doubt in recent years. He was miscast in action films like The Sum of All Fears, Daredevil and Paycheck, and the misguided Jersey Girl probably wasn't his fault. Certainly Gigli wasn't his fault -- even Al Pacino couldn't make that garbage work. But in Surviving Christmas, yes, it's Affleck's fault. He completely fails to give his character any depth or comic timing, nor does he give us a sense of emotional change over the course of the film. He can't even pull off one second of human interaction.

But Surviving Christmas is so bad that even superb actors like Gandolfini, O'Hara and Applegate just wind up looking stunned. Applegate is the only one with enough presence to appear untouched by the wretchedness around her.

It all becomes clear when we discover that director Mike Mitchell's previous film was Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo. Four screenwriters are credited, beginning with Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, who wrote and co-directed the funny pop music satire Josie and the Pussycats -- a guilty pleasure of mine -- and including Jeffrey Ventimilia and Joshua Sternin, who wrote for "The Simpsons." Clearly one team was called in to fix whatever the other team wrote, but I can't see how this thing could be any worse.

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