Friday, October 22, 2004

“Surviving Christmas,” a holiday farce seemingly calculated to type Ben Affleck as an incorrigible chucklehead who probably wouldn’t recognize a flattering role if it accosted him in broad daylight, seems unlikely to sustain a first-run presence beyond Thanksgiving weekend — and that could be a madly optimistic forecast.

So the title itself is primed to backfire on the movie.

Whatever theoretical advantage derived from invoking Christmas may not survive the aggressive feebleness of the material, attributed to a pair of futile screenwriting teams. It might have been more prudent to test the viability of a dodgy pretext in a national screenwriting contest, just to see if anyone at large proved clever enough to finesse the obnoxious and alienating aspects.

Mr. Affleck is introduced as a supposed advertising hotshot, Drew Latham, who runs a Chicago company called BarCode Media. We’re invited to overhear an eggnog pitch that sounds like a sure loser. He fails to sell his trophy girlfriend, Missy Vangilder (Jennifer Morrison, considerably more appealing than the character’s name suggests), on a holiday for two in Fiji. She prefers to spend the holidays with her family and reminds Drew that he still hasn’t introduced his own parents.

This dereliction is ultimately explained by a sob story confided to a replacement sweetheart, Alicia Valco, played by Christina Applegate. Up to a point, Alicia is also a hard sell. Returning from college, she discovers that Drew, a total stranger, has moved in on her family for the holidays. The audience is about a reel ahead of Alicia, having watched Drew resolve to avoid a solitary yuletide by bribing Mr. and Mrs. Valco (James Gandolfini and Catherine O’Hara), who happen to reside in the suburban home where Drew claims to have spent an idyllic boyhood.



Tom Valco, a gruff, bearded auto mechanic, is susceptible to an offer of $250,000 for boarding and humoring Drew through Christmas Day. His wife, Christine, decides to play along in some weary sardonic spirit. Only their teenage son Brian (Josh Zuckerman) resists the intrusion, upon learning that Drew wants his old bedroom back. The one-dimensional aspect of Brian is that he’s always glued to the computer in his bedroom, monitoring porn sites.

The problem for humorists who insist on sustaining a plot this dubious is that the brashly unattractive features of Drew and the expediently mercenary features of the Valcos may defy comic gratification, even in fits and starts, or comic redemption, in time for a fadeout. If this dilemma lends itself to a reputable solution, the writers and director Mike Mitchell have not pulled one out of their tattered holiday stocking.

On the contrary, they keep reaching in and dragging out heavily facetious remnants or lumps of coal. There’s a lame variation on the oversize, overilluminated Christmas tree in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” still the happiest farce in its area of specialization. Drew plays butterfingers with a dinner platter. At the urging of her houseguest, Mrs. Valco indulges in a photo shoot in Chicago that ends up on her son’s watch list.

Nevertheless, the accumulation of stale or degrading gags is not supposed to count against any of the perps on or off the screen. It’s understood that all the vulgar miscalculation and domestic vandalism is innocent of genuine class malice and reflects only the desperation of Hollywood hacks engaged in harmless and inept joshing. The governing rationale is worthy of Drew’s sob stories and festive brainstorms.

Perhaps Christmases in Chicago just aren’t as rollicking as they used to be back in the halcyon days, when Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie dropped in on Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold.

**

TITLE: “Surviving Christmas”

RATING: PG-13 (Recurrent comic and sexual vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Mike Mitchell. Screenplay by Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont, Jeffrey Ventimilia and Joshua Sternin. Cinematography by Peter Collister and Tom Priestly Jr. Production design by Caroline Hanania. Costume design by Mary Jane Fort. Music by Randy Edelman.

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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