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Surviving Christmas

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  • Noel Vera
    Staying alive Noel Vera Mike Mitchell s Surviving Christmas defies description, but the words car wreck, train crash, and bridge collapse come to mind.
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 26, 2004
      Staying alive

      Noel Vera

      Mike Mitchell's "Surviving Christmas" defies description, but the
      words "car wreck," "train crash," and "bridge collapse" come to
      mind. It's essentially ninety minutes of Ben Affleck doing his level
      best to be annoying and self-centered, on which terms you could say
      the movie is a howling success; question is, does anyone want to
      actually sit through the experience?

      Actually, it starts off promisingly enough: readers of Entertainment
      Weekly and such erudite chroniclers of popular American culture
      would be familiar with Affleck's obnoxious on-camera persona,
      especially during that gruesome period when he was under the
      delusion he had found true love with pop diva Jennifer Lopez; how do
      you recover after a debacle like that? Affleck's answer is actually
      fairly ingenious: you make a Christmas-movie joke out of it, with
      Affleck himself as the butt of the joke.

      Enter Drew Latham, Affleck's character, a handsome, obscenely rich
      (but does Affleck play any other kind, nowadays?) advertising
      executive having trouble with his girlfriend (a largely cosmetic
      Jennifer Morrison) because he hasn't the slightest notion what to do
      during Christmas--spend time with the family, or vacation in Fiji?
      Turns out he has 'issues' with his family that prevent him from
      having a normal Christmas, to which his girlfriend makes the
      ultimatum: no family, no Fiji. Drew flounders about for a while,
      then demands that his girlfriend's therapist (Stephen Root, looking
      suitably harassed) tell him what to do. The doctor's advice: go to
      your childhood home, write down a list of your 'grievances' with
      your family, then burn it up, saying "I forgive you," this hopefully
      creating some sort of closure, even of the symbolic kind. Drew
      accepts this piece of drivel, drives up to his old house, lights up
      his little piece of paper; meanwhile Tom Valco (James Gandolfini),
      the house's present owner, sneaks quietly up behind Drew and whacks
      him in the back of the head with a snow shovel. Drew is carried
      inside the house unconscious, wakes up, and promptly offers to rent
      the entire family for $250,000, on the condition that they help him
      re-live the experience of a family Christmas.

      Sounds plausible? Actually, it's crazy enough to work, and it might
      have if there was real comic talent behind the movie, a distinct
      comic sensibility with the shamelessness and storytelling rigor to
      take the premise all the way to its logical conclusion. I can't help
      thinking of Terry Zwigoff's "Bad Santa," where Billy Bob Thornton
      played a mean-spirited, slovenly safecracker who snaps and snarls at
      children, sodomizes fat women and prostitutes, and wakes up early
      afternoons in an alcoholic haze. Zwigoff, whose previous works
      include the brilliant documentary "Crumb" (about maverick comix
      artist Robert Crumb), and the screen adaptation of Daniel Clowes'
      graphic novel "Ghost World," has a genuinely subversive sensibility,
      one that isn't afraid to turn Christmas-movie clich├ęs on their heads
      to show you something really different, something dark and truthful
      and funny all at the same time. You wait for the film to go soft on
      you, to give in and admit that Christmas is Good for the Soul the
      way all Christmas movies do; eventually it does, but in a manner
      Alfred Hitchcock or Preston Sturges might recognize--a happy ending
      that makes a too-perfect fit into the movie's plot, the same time it
      acknowledges it's a sop to conventional morality.

      Mitchell's no Zwigoff; his filmography includes "Deuce Bigelow: Male
      Gigolo," a movie which turns on the even less likely premise that
      Rob Schnieder is attractive to the opposite sex. He's helped by
      Deborah Kaplan and Harry Eflont, the writers responsible for "Josie
      and the Pussycats" and "The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas"
      (suddenly you know just why the characters felt so flatly cartoonish
      in the Hanna-Barbera manner), who in turn are helped by Jeffrey
      Ventimilia and Joshua Sternin (both "The Simpsons" veterans, which
      may account for the occasional funny punchline--or may not; James
      Gandolfini claims the dialogue was largely improvised).

      The black comedy starts turning limp about halfway through, when
      Drew realizes that what he really wants to do is help the fairly
      dysfunctional Valco family with their problems: Tom and wife
      Christine (Catherine O'Hara) want to separate; son Brian (Josh
      Zuckerman) spends too much time online surfing web porn; daughter
      Alicia (Christina Applegate) hates Drew's guts (sanest reaction in
      the film, I think). What was supposed to be a riff on Affleck's
      irritating persona becomes a soggy attempt at a standard-issue
      Christmas movie, with the message that "one always needs family,
      even if it's a rented one;" that, or "$250,000 will buy you
      anything, even a dysfunctional family to play with for the holidays."

      Affleck is Affleck--as I've noted before, that persona of his is
      remarkably effective (if bottled you'd make millions in the insect
      repellant industry) though he's far less convincing when actually
      asked to act; Christina Applegate has acquired a more low-key, less
      sitcom-ish delivery since her "Married with Children" days--a marked
      improvement, I have to say; Udo Kier gives a brief if amusing cameo
      as some supposedly brilliant fashion photographer. James Gandolfini
      and Catherine O'Hara make a remarkably convincing couple, he with
      the Tony Soprano glower, she with the skewered "Our Lady of the
      Cannabis" smile; they not only look like they've been married a long
      time, but are able to deliver recognizably human reactions to the
      more odious portions of the script (instead of pinching their noses
      the way any sane man would do). O'Hara's Christine seems
      particularly heroic; for the first half she's asked to wear the most
      unglamorous hair and makeup since Charlize Theron's in "Monster,"
      for the second she's made-over into a heavy-metal 'ho.' Yet she
      never loses your sympathy--when Drew asks Christine if anything is
      the matter, she bravely denies it; you can't help but admire her
      tenacity, the same time you pity her the misfortune of having her
      deepest secrets exposed to such an insensitive lout. The woman
      deserves a far better comic vehicle than this Christmas turd.

      (First appeared in Businessworld, 11/19/04)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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