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HOLIDAY BLUES <br> CHANCE FOR LAUGHS MOSTLY SQUANDERED IN 'SURVIVING CHRISTMAS'

SURVIVING CHRISTMAS ** 1/2

STARRING: Ben Affleck, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara

DIRECTOR: Mike Mitchell

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

RATING: PG-13 for sexual content, language and brief drug reference

THE LOWDOWN: A millionaire pays a family to take him in for Christmas.

The first Christmas film of the season arrives just in time for Halloween -- and that says it all about "Surviving Christmas."

Part trick and part treat, the comedy feels like a "Saturday Night Live" skit. There's an idea here that has comic possibilities -- a young millionaire pays a family $250,000 (and counting) to be "his" family for Christmas -- but the plot adds up to barely more than a one-joke movie.

If you've watched the film's preview, with that hilarious scene of star Ben Affleck sliding down a bannister that breaks into pieces, you've seen the film's funniest skits. That's disappointing. Nice guy Affleck could use a movie break right now, but he's not getting it here.

The film has plenty of heart, thanks to its acting core of Affleck, the great Catherine O'Hara and James Gandolfini, but it lacks brains. In fact, it's downright absurd at times.

And there's a gaping lack of tone or consistency. Is this a black comedy? An offbeat romance? A magical holiday film? Director Mike Mitchell ("Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo") never finds his film's identity.

Mitchell doesn't use his actors wisely either. He fails to rein in Affleck's naturally boyish charm; instead he lets the actor mug it up to the extreme. Luckily, O'Hara is able to squeeze laughs out of many lame comic moments just through her facial expressions. And Gandolfini's best Tony Soprano grimaces are worked well to comic effect.

Affleck plays hip millionaire executive Drew Latham. When he asks his spoiled heiress girlfriend to hop on a plane Christmas day for a sunny destination, she spouts off an unbelieveable speech about the holidays and family.

It sets off a chain reaction. No one will spend Christmas with Drew, and suddenly he's running through an airport after the analyst of a former girlfriend to learn why he's so alone at Christmas. The ridiculous scene is there to get Drew to his old family home so he can deal with his issues.

Things improve at "home," where he rents the Valco family for the holidays. Drew calls them mom and dad (don't be surprised to giggle when he does) and sleeps in his old room.

The Valcos' gorgeous daughter (Christina Applegate) arrives, and she'll no doubt complicate Drew's life. Someone will have to teach Drew money can't buy happiness, and someone else will have to show this family that love can keep them together.

It's all quaint and cute, but there are too many ludicrous moments in the script. Replace that foolishness with more Christmas cheer, and this might have made an endearing holiday movie.

e-mail: truberto@buffnews.com

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