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Surviving Christmas

Holiday movies are a hit-and-miss proposition — for every A Christmas Story there are three 8 Crazy Nights. (Admittedly, there are few films of any genre as terrible as 8 Crazy Nights, but you get the point.) That Surviving Christmas (2004) also stars the bigheaded block o' wood that is Ben Affleck makes the potential for awfulness ever so much more acute. And yet, Affleck's not so bad in this genre entry. As Drew Latham, a preposterously rich, inexplicably insane ad executive who pays a family to take him in during the holidays, Affleck radiates a toothy, manic charm. He even delivers his dialogue in a somewhat natural manner, only occasionally falling back on his habit of reciting lines as if he's reading them off the back of his hand. If one could be impressed by Affleck — and that's a big if — this would be the time. Playing backup as the less-than-enthusiastic couple who accept an obscene amount of cash to pretend to be Drew's parents, James Gandolfini and Catherine O'Hara work far harder and turn in far better performances than the film's routine, unimaginative script requires. O'Hara brings a hundred subtle little bonus moments to her role as a schlumpy housewife who gets, courtesy of a makeover from Drew, a sexy shot in the arm to her self-esteem — she's one of the rare actresses who can imbue even a two-word snippet of dialogue with a wealth of subtext. As the other half of the bickering twosome, Gandolfini provides a bearish counterpoint to O'Hara's winsomeness and proves that he can do the best slow burn since Jackie Gleason. When Christina Applegate shows up as the daughter of the house, figuring out where her initially contentious relationship with Drew is headed isn't exactly an algebraic equation. Unfortunately Applegate, an actress who's proven her comedic chops in a number of better films, seems to know what a sluggish story she's dealing with and does the bare minimum asked of her and nothing more. What capsizes Surviving Christmas is both the film's patently predictable, formula-written script and a schizoid indecision as to whether it wants to be dark comedy or Hallmark froth. Confusing matters further is Affleck's poorly defined character, a man who's understandably lonely but also appears to be somewhat unhinged, for reasons that are never explained. The enormous amount of money he throws at these strangers — $250,000! — to playact as his family and the obsessive, frightening cheer with which he overwhelms them indicate some sort of deep, dark psychosis — but it's never elaborated on, leaving it to the audience to puzzle out why, exactly, his behavior is so flat-out nuts. There are some solid laughs in Surviving Christmas, mostly via Gandolfini and O'Hara, and it's not a difficult film to sit through. But as cinematic gifts go, this one's less a shiny new Red Rider BB gun than it is a $10 gift certificate for Wal-Mart. DreamWorks' DVD release offers a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with a separate, open-matte option (1.33:1) on a dual-layer disc, with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include an HBO "First Look" featurette (11 min.), an alternate opening (2 min.), six storyboard galleries, and trailers. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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