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Surviving Christmas

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Surviving Christmas

Starring: Ben Affleck, James Gandolfini
Director: Mike Mitchell
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 91 Minutes
Release Date: October 2004
Genres: Christmas, Comedy, Romance

*Also starring: Christina Applegate, Catherine O'Hara, Josh Zuckerman, Bill Macy, Danielle Panabaker, Bryan Fisher, Jonny Acker, Joan M. Blair, Judah Friedlander, Amy Halloran, Jesse Heiman

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

As SURVIVING CHRISTMAS opens, you can smell a cinematic disaster in the offing. With loud, irony-laced Christmas music ("It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year"), the movie cuts between clichéd images, good and bad. Festive shoppers gaily traipse between brightly colored stores laden with festive and luxurious goods while somewhere else a Christmas-cookie-making granny is about to commit suicide with her gas oven. Not able to wait until the Christmas season is here -- it's not even Halloween yet much less Thanksgiving -- the movie looks like it might be just as big a turkey as graces most holiday tables.

The plot concerns a wealthy, lonely guy named Drew Latham, who can't find anybody to take him in for Christmas so he buys himself an instant family. Haven't we seen this movie before and wasn't it called DICKIE ROBERTS, a pathetic picture featuring the truly awful David Spade? SURVIVING CHRISTMAS stars Ben Affleck, an actor who has a less than sterling record when it comes to some of his script choices: GIGLI, DAREDEVIL, PEARL HARBOR, stop me when you can't take any more.

But wait. Just when you're about to dismiss Affleck and his over-the-top demeanor, the story starts to click. After getting dumped by an airhead aptly named Missy (Jennifer Morrison), Drew finds comfort in the dysfunctional Valco family, led by the taciturn but bickering Tom (James Gandolfini) and Christine (Catherine O'Hara). As his temporary mom and dad for a price, the parents give him all of the fake love that a large check can buy. But since they don't have much of a clue as to how a happy family might act, they don't exactly make a warm and friendly home for Drew. In fact, it takes frequent references to their contract to get them to hit their marks and perform up to minimal standards. It's no wonder that their teenage son, Brian (Josh Zuckerman), would rather hide in his room looking at dirty pictures on his computer than come downstairs and be with his family.

The movie really gets in gear when Drew finds that he isn't the only grown child in the family. He is shocked and upset to find that he has to share his new family with Alicia (Christina Applegate), Tom and Christine's grown daughter who suddenly shows up for the holidays.

As everyone is busy faking it, something strange starts to happen. They begin to enjoy themselves, as pseudo fun begins to morph occasionally into actual delight. Drew and Alicia, who at first squabble like real siblings, begin to reexamine their relationship. The icy on the cake comes when Missy brings her family to visit Drew's. This episode engenders the movie's biggest and most satisfying set of laughs.

By the end, the audience's sarcastic smiles turn into sympathetic and genuine laughs. A movie I thought I was going to hate at first turned into a nice little treat. But I still can't figure out why they chose to open a Christmas picture two months ahead of the season it celebrates, since, by the end, it becomes a story with real Christmas spirit.

SURVIVING CHRISTMAS runs a fast 1:33. It is rated PG-13 for "sexual content, language and a brief drug reference" and would be acceptable for kids around 9 and up.

Copyright © 2004 Steve Rhodes

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