Surviving Christmas (2004)
Written by Harry Elfont, Deborah Kaplan, Jennifer Ventimilia, and Joshua Sternin
Directed by Mike Mitchell
It began in 2000. Sony Pictures wanted to develop a film for actress/comedian/director Betty Thomas. By this time, she’d directed films like The Brady Bunch Movie, Howard Stern’s Private Parts, and Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Doolittle. These weren’t ground-breaking movies, but people out there feel compelled to watch at least one of these if they come across it on television. The Brady Bunch Movie is mine. The more the film developed, the more Sony became hesitant to make it and eventually washed its hands of the project. So, Surviving Christmas found its way to Dreamworks. Ms. Buckley also smartly walked away from the movie.
In 2001, Ben Affleck was attached as the lead, and the picture wrapped shooting in early 2003. The gap in production was apparently the result of problems with the script and a series of production issues. The gap in release (finished in early 2003 – released Christmas 2004) was done to avoid clashing with Affleck’s other late 2003 picture, Payback. It’s never a good sign when a film is delayed like this because it shows a lack of confidence in the studio. If a movie is good, you don’t want to sit on it; you want to release it so you can start making your money back.
So what happens in this steaming pile? Wealthy ad exec Drew Latham (Affleck) is a profoundly obnoxious & unlikeable human being. He surprises his girlfriend, Missy, with tickets for Fiji but has scheduled the trip for over Christmas. Missy is all about family and is angry that Drew refuses to introduce her to his. She breaks off the relationship, and Drew becomes terrified that he might spend the holiday alone. He seeks out Missy’s therapist (for some reason), played by Stephen Root, who is completely wasted in this role.
The doctor suggests Drew write down all his grievances with life and burn them in his childhood home. Drew does this, but a new family lives in the house. The patriarch, Tom Valco (James Gandolfini), thinks Drew is some crazy person and chooses to assault him with a snow shovel. Waking up in his childhood bedroom, Drew can move past the violence and offers the Valco family $250,000 to let him spend Christmas with them. Tom could use the money though his wife, Christine (Catherine O’Hara), thinks this is weird (it is). When the Valcos’ adult daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate) comes home for the holidays, she hates this setup. But then she and Drew fall in love, so that happens.
One of the interesting things to do with Ben Affleck is to chart his career trajectory over time. In 1998, he appeared in three movies (including Phantoms, that’s…a movie). In 1999, Benny was still hanging in there for three movies. In 2000, his roles jumped to four but dropped back to three in 2001. One of those was Pearl Harbor, which was a massive picture for him and a peak of sorts. In 2002, he had five films released; in 2003, he was down to four. The one movie in that year that served as a bellwether was the infamous Gigli. After that, you can see the decline in 2004, with Affleck appearing in only two movies, Surviving Christmas and Jersey Girl. From there, each year varies wildly. In some years, he’d only be in one movie, and we saw him shift to wanting to direct & produce.
Surviving Christmas would have been a disaster with or without the release of Gigli. He appears to have had some sort of breakdown during press junkets for the picture, doing things like laying his head in Applegate’s lap, badmouthing his longtime friend Kevin Smith, and refusing to talk about the movie. His representatives would claim he was suffering from a sore throat, but I remember the vitriol towards Gigli (well deserved), which broke his brain. The golden boy was tarnished now, and he was definitely feeling it. But most of what I’ve told you is everything happening outside the film. How could it truly be bad with Gandolfini and O’Hara in the cast? They are fantastic!
I will give props to Mr. Affleck because, based on his unhinged performance, he was aware of how bad this movie was. I would like to think he realized he couldn’t back out because contracts were signed and the film moved forward based on his involvement. Because he was stuck making the movie, he might as well have fun, and so being the asshole that Affleck is (I mean, he just is a jerk), he played the role like the biggest fuckwad he could possibly be. Meanwhile, Gandolfini, O’Hara, and Applegate tried to play things somewhat straight. Their director, Mike Mitchell, had just come off the box office success of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, so you know you’re in the hands of a cinematic master. You can add top-tier ingredients to your stew, but if you dump a bucket of shit in, it won’t matter. It will all taste like shit.
We must remember that Drew’s motivation to pay the Valcos is purely narcissistic. He doesn’t need to have a fake family to land a client. He’s already broken up with his girlfriend, so he’s not trying to impress her. By the middle of the second act, the script forces them back together just to create needless tension but ultimately, he is dropping a massive chunk of change to soothe his ego. I suspect the studio at least made edits to align the picture more with 2003’s surprise success Bad Santa, a dark comedy set in the holiday season. But Surviving Christmas isn’t a dark comedy so much as a failed attempt at a live-action cartoon…sort of? It is such an odd and terrible movie; it’s hard to explain.
I can express what this movie is like by describing a particular moment near the end. Throughout the picture, Tom and Christine Valco have been putting on appearances. They haven’t told their kids, but they plan on divorcing after New Year’s, but for now, they are shining it on. Drew finds out about this, and because it clashes with his desire for the “perfect family” to spend Christmas with, he decides to fix their marriage. One of the things he suggests is that Christine secretly takes boudoir photos and gives them to Tom as a Christmas gift. This leads to Catherine O’Hara doing her best improv-ing with a less than stellar script as a jumping-off point. If you know O’Hara’s work, she really does put her all into a role.
Later, Drew has “made up” with Missy, and she brings her family to meet his. At the same time, the Valcos’ youngest child, teenage Brian (Josh Zuckerman), spends most of his time watching porn on the computer in his bedroom. This is the butt of around half a dozen jokes. The timeline gets fuzzy at one point. I think it’s Christmas night, but then it seems like it isn’t at specific points. However, the evening Missy and her family visit, Brian stumbles across one of his mom’s boudoir photos being used for advertising a porn website. All we see is Catherine O’Hara’s face and a pair of legs sticking up in the air. The turn where it gets even weirder is when everyone, including the guests, walks into Brian’s room and sees this. The punchline, I suppose, is when Missy’s dad comments along the lines of “Hey, incest is cool if you’re into it,” and then later implies he’s going to fuck his own daughter when they get home, which is something Missy is horrified by. Like, what the fuck!?
Surviving Christmas does not induce the sense of the holiday season at all. It is a miserable waste of talent & resources, resulting in a mean, nasty shitty movie. The studio likely thought the same thing as they released this holiday movie on October 22, 2004, more than a week before Halloween. I don’t know if I’d even recommend this as an “it’s so bad, it’s good” picture; it is just plain bad.