Ben Affleck nearly killed the holiday season with this 2004 stinker.
Hollywood would have us believe Christmas is full of dark, dysfunctional families we must endure each December.
While some agree with that grim outlook, the numbers don’t support the melodrama.
For openers, the holiday season actually sees a dip in suicide rates. As for the family scenario, even in cases where an off kilter member occupies sofa time we survive due to the rarity of the visitation. I suspect this has become a trope in Hollywood to those who lower themselves by travelling back to the hamlet from whence they were reared and look down on the rubes who never left.
Using this framework director Mike Mitchell delivered quality on par with his “Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo” with “Surviving Christmas.” The script was reworked numerous times and they started production without a finished script. Dreamworks took a look at the finished product, then at the release schedule, and realized they had a problem. This unfunny romp was poised to go against “The Incredibles,” “National Treasure” and “The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie”.
The studio tried a new gambit: They would sell their title as the first holiday movie of the season, releasing it one week before Halloween. So let’s carve into this misbegotten yuletide romp and discover why it would be something you would find in a manger … underneath the south end of some of the lowing livestock.
0:01:52 SCEPTIC INTRODUCTION
The Andy Williams classic “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” wells up ironically to scenes of stressful holiday montages. Comedy is to be had in watching a woman sob during a Christmas program, a man hanging lights and falling off of a ladder and another man struggling to wrap gifts. He ultimately tosses the box out the window.
Subtlety is now firmly in place.
0:02:36 TYMPANIC TRAUMA
We watch a matronly grandmother preparing a batch of cookies. As Williams’ anthem crescendos she turns on the oven, opens the door and promptly crawls inside. (Hope she set that on “Self Cleaning” to thwart those “CSI” busy-bodies.)
0:02:50 DEPLETED CHARACTER CONCENTRATION
We cut to a corporate boardroom and meet Drew Latham (Ben Affleck). He’s a hotshot ad executive with a deeply apathetic attitude towards Christmas. He is pitching a campaign for an alcohol-infused eggnog with a logo-ready family dubbed “The Noggertons.” Between this pitch, and Drew wearing a T-shirt to the meeting, I understand the executives being leery.
0:03:39 BLUNT FORCE DIALOGUE
We later see the group outside the office shaking hands, the deal successfully closed. How could they not, after this pitch:
DREW: Most Americans feel that Christmas is a time for family…and in order to stand being around their families for one or two days, they need to swill as much alcohol as humanly possible.” Here’s the tagline: “Enjoy our family, so you can enjoy your family.”
You can tell this film is a farce, as the clients did not hurl a bottle at Drew’s head.
0:04:09 CHRONICLE SEIZURE
In his penthouse that night Drew gives his girlfriend Missy a pre-Christmas gift in front of his tree — …and, wait a second.
We are are this close to Christmas and he is just now pitching an eggnog campaign?!?!? I’m starting to suspect this movie will not be completely cleaving to veracity.
0:05:23 INVASIVE PATHOS
Missy is upset when Drew gives her plane tickets for a Fiji vacation for Christmas day. While I can see her point about spending that day with family, she goes overboard and breaks up with him over a generous gift with which you can change the travel dates. Good thing he didn’t get her a Chia Pet. She’d probably set his couch on fire and dump bleach in his aquarium.
0:07:07 ADVERSE CEREBRAL ACTIVITY
The next day Drew goes through existential angst and calls everyone he knows, desperate to find anyone with whom to spend the holiday. Sorry, no. Less than 12 hours ago Christmas was an inconvenience. Now, he’s desperate for home, hearth, and hugs? This is a sign of a deep emotional flaw. He could be diagnosed with North Pole-ar Disorder.
0:10:15 ARTIFICIAL NARRATIVE STIMULANT
The next day Drew goes from imbalanced to completely unhinged. In a packed airport he corners a therapist travelling with his family, and starts blathering about his anxiety — except this is Missy’s therapist.
FAST FACT: ‘Surviving Christmas’ made a Grinch-like $11 million at the U.S. box office.
Annoyed, and wishing to be rid of this psycho, the shrink dispenses some dime-store advice: Drew should write down his issues and then go to a location from his past. There he should set the paper on fire, say “I forgive you” and watch his problems dissipate with the embers. The only thing more asinine than this professional malpractice is Drew thinking it’s a great idea.
0:13:28 LOCALE ANESTHESIA
Drew exits a cab in front of his childhood home, beaming like a Molly-fueled nightclub denizen. Inside we meet the surly Valco family. Tom (James Gandolfini) and Christine (Catherine O’Hara) are shouting at their son Brian between grumbling about money and the amount of salami in the house.
Then they see Drew outside, hugging the tree (?) and just as he says “I forgive you” Tom comes out and cracks Drew over the head with a snow shovel. This would be a result of never informing the home owners what it is he is doing. I felt good about this!
0:015:03 ADVERSE CEREBRAL ACTIVITY
After trespassing and giving a loopy explanation why he was starting a fire in their front yard, Drew asks if they would give him a tour of the house. For reasons known only to the script writer they agree.
0:015:32 BLUNT FORCE DIALOGUE
DREW: (mounting the stairs) Did you hear that? That stair squeaked. [now hopping in place] Do you know what we used to call that squeaky stair? “The squeaky stair!” Ha ha ha ha! [more hopping and laughing ensues]
I had been wondering why the family had yet to call the cops — but now phoning up the nearest asylum to ask if they are missing a patient seems the wiser call to make.
0:17:31 IRREGULAR PLOTBEAT
Now the train of thought not only jumps the rails, but crashes into Soul Asylum’s misery factory. Drew proposes that he stays to live with the Valcos. After getting pushed out the door he pleads with Tom, then offers to pay him. Seriously. Then, after initially refusing Drew offers to pay $250,000. Tom embraces him and says, “Welcome home, son.”
0:19:11 ELEVATED FORESHADOW LEVELS
Next, a lawyer is in the kitchen drawing up a contract, stipulating Drew gets Brian’s room and detailing the various celebrations and merriments that they are agreeing to perform. Certainly we’ll be seeing these forced upon the family for the sake of mirth. When asked around the table if all agree Christine moans, “We’re faking it anyway – may as well get paid.”
Ah, the festive glee!
0:22:52 COMEDIC ARREST
In the car, during mandated tree shopping, Drew and Tom argue about Tom wearing a Santa hat. Drew leans in and says, “Are you familiar with the phrase ‘breach Of contract?’” This movie is playing out like a session of glad-tidings aversion therapy.
0:26:12 EXPLORATORY STORY INCISION
Christina Applegate arrives as the Valco’s daughter Alicia. She is dismayed at their new arrangement, and Drew is upset at the inclusion of a family member he had not counted on. Meanwhile we are driven to a headache as Drew refers to Tom and Christine as “Dad” and “Mom”.
0:31:13 CRANIAL ATROPHY
Drew is thrown off by Alicia and needs to get his purchased dream back on track, so he hatched a solution. He hands out scripts to the family for them to follow.
0:33:32 : SCRIPT GRAFT
To compensate for Alicia’s disruption Drew has decided he needs his grandfather added to the mix. In walks an elderly actor from the local community theater. Drew refers to him as his “Doo Da”. He takes the guest room, so Brian now sleeps in the garage. These actions all actually playing out on screen, for us to buy into.
0:36:05 CLICHE MALIGNANCY
In order to get a family picture with Santa they all cram into an Airstream trailer where his throne is located, for some reason. The obligatory ugly sweaters are on full display.
0:39:21 BLUNT FORCE DIALOGUE
Tom tells Drew the whole scam has to end, since he and Christine have decided to end their marriage. (A wise decision by all evidence.) Drew declares he will step in and fix things, because an unbalanced interloper with residual corrupted psychosis is the perfect mediator for a marital crisis. He confronts Christine with his plan — they should go shopping. She asks him, why?
DREW: I don’t know. Sometimes it’s just fun to buy sh**!
Oh yeah, this family is going to be repaired in no time at all.
0:43:20 RUPTURED OPTICS
Instead of shopping Drew sets Christine up with a fashion photographer he knows, for a set of glamour shots. Apparently tarting her up like a skid row prostitute is supposed to be empowering.
0:44:45 SCRIPT GRAFT
Drew compels Brian and Alicia to ride a toboggan. The hill they choose is only a few feet, so Drew charters a helicopter to drop them atop a mountain. During the ensuing ride through a dense forest they crash, and Drew and Alicia share a moment — and I’m about to share the eggnog I drank half an hour ago..
0:52:13 EDITING ARRHYTHMIA
No better indicator of an empty script is the musical montage. Despite Drew behaving like an arrested adolescent on bath salts we are sold he is bringing the family together, with numerous traditional activities shown while “Feliz Navidad” plays. At one point Tom opens a beer with a nutcracker. I believe I’ll join him!
0:52:52 IATROGENIC DIRECTION
Alicia told Drew of a time where she saw an ice-covered tree and how magical it seemed. So later he walks her outside for a surprise. He found the tree from her youth, in all its romantic glory. As she’s about to swoon Drew takes out a walkie-talkie and says, “Hit it, guys.” Elves walk into view, a manger scene slides across the ice, toy soldiers walk out, a choir appears, and an angel descends from somewhere above. There are spotlights, reflections from a disco ball, and even a camel joining the fray.
This all takes Alicia completely by surprise, because her field of vision apparently doesn’t extend beyond the edges of the frame.
0:55:53 COMMERCIAL TOXICITY
Elsewhere Missy is unwrapping a gift from Drew (sent just prior to his unravelling.) It’s a bracelet that costs as much as a new Mercedes. It’s from Cartier, which we hear half a dozen times. “I’m telling you, he IS wonderful,” says the woman who became enraged by expensive airfare. So no one in this film has emotional stability.
1:00:03 INVASIVE PATHOS
As a despondent Drew is paying off the family to walk away alone Missy calls him to announce she and her parents have arrived at the Valco home. In a panic Drew offers another $75,000 for them to pretend to be his family in front of her family. Seriously, the only genuine creature in this entire film is the Christmas tree.
1:01:54 COMEDIC ARREST
Tom announces that Doo Da is outside, and Drew says let him in. (Get ready for hilarity) Tom attempts to explain something to Drew, but in his panic he hurriedly says to let the actor in. (Are you ready???) Tom, frustrated says “Fine”, and lets him inside. (Seriously now, be ready!!) Drew loudly announces his Doo Da is here, and then learns the actor sent his understudy!
Seriously, I actually HATE this movie.
1:03:08 CRANIAL ATROPHY
Alicia comes back in the kitchen and wants to have a word with Drew. Why? Because her emotions change more frequently than the Buffalo Bills coaching staff. As she lists off a number of his defects she tells Drew, “I am touched” and they kiss. Well that makes it official; everyone in this film is touched in the head.
1:08:40 VISUAL ADRENAL INFUSION
For no discernible motive Christine takes everyone on a tour of the house. For no sensible explanation Brian is staring catatonic at an image of his mother from her photo shoot, which for no logical rationale has been placed on the internet, and now for no measurable amount of humor everyone gets to see.
1:11:52 ARTIFICIAL NARRATIVE STIMULANT
Christine’s picture has Brian fleeing into the night, Tom goes to a hotel, Missy’s parents leave in a huff with her, and Drew sits morosely alone. Hard to imagine a cravenly selfish plan that dehumanized a family and cheapened love ones could have ended so badly.
1:15:24 CAUTERIZED PLOT CAVITY
As a sullen Drew is about to leave the house he revisits the farcical therapy exercise. He jots down on a notepad “People I Love Leave Me” and tosses it into the fireplace and says “I forgive you.”
No. NO! You do NOT forgive anyone, after you have acted like an abject sociopath from the end of the opening credits! You have lent pain and dysfunction towards everyone who has appeared on screen. (Okay, maybe the original Doo Da got off easy.)
What you do is go back to your cavernous home, slug your spiked eggnog, and then punch a mirror. Done. You are a craven, hollow person from whom sane people should flee. Want loved ones to stop leaving you? Then go buy a legless hamster!
1:17:15 IRREGULAR PLOTBEAT
Tom stops by Drew’s penthouse-of-despair to collect his money. They both realize they have a ticket to Doo Da’s stage play — being held on Christmas Day! So they both go to the packed performance — on Christmas Day — because stupidly they think the whole family will be there. The only thing dumber; everyone actually IS there.
0:00: COLLAPSED CLIMAX
Drew goes outside and of course Alicia is sitting on the steps. And of course Drew professes his love for her, because that is what people say after knowing someone for 3 days. And of course this movie that has given us a repugnant and irredeemable character rewards and redeems him for a happy ending. Not a soul that watched this film was happy with this result.
I look around my home and see nothing but glee and healthy relationships. I see the holiday making people happy and excitement at the arriving merriment. I smile over this and I go fire up the grill on the patio.
Inside everything is warm, and it has nothing to do with the temperature. I smile, and eject the DVD. I go outside and toss the disc into the fire.
I do NOT say “I forgive you.”