One holiday movie that shouldn't be unwrapped

`Christmas' falters because of Affleck's unlikable character


October 22, 2004|By Gene Seymour | Gene Seymour,NEWSDAY

As a public service, it is our solemn duty to tell you to avoid being seduced by the smirking holiday veneer worn by Surviving Christmas. If you need heartwarming, Christmas-inspired misanthropy, the nearest available DVD of Bad Santa remains your first, best option.

And Ben Affleck is a principal reason for this.

OK, maybe not Affleck so much as the moviemakers who expect us to spend even five minutes in the company of his character, Drew Latham, an advertising mogul who's such a self-aggrandizing shark he believes he can "sell whale steaks to Greenpeace."

As the holiday season approaches, Drew is getting anxiety attacks over the prospect of spending yet another Christmas by himself in his spacious Chicago loft. Encouraged to reconnect with his lost childhood, Drew makes his way to the suburban house where he grew up. The problem is that it's no longer his family's house, but the abode of the Valcos, whose brooding patriarch, Tom (James Gandolfini), taking Drew for a crazy interloper, brains him with a snow shovel.

Upon awakening, Drew is seized by the notion of renting the Valcos as his surrogate family for what, in his ad-addled brain, is an "old-fashioned family Christmas." Tom balks at the idea until Drew offers to pay a quarter of a million dollars. "We fake it anyway," says Tom's wife, Christine (Catherine O'Hara). "So we may as well get paid for it."

Which suggests that "sweetness and light" are a hard sell in a family where mom and dad are on the verge of separation and their son (John Zuckerman) shuts himself in his room "researching" porn Web sites. The only self-possessed Valco is daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate), who thinks Drew is a maniac and should vacate their lives immediately.

Obnoxious, overbearing men-children aren't exactly a novelty in contemporary American cinema. (Look up, "Sandler, Adam.") But Affleck, like Drew, is trying way too hard to no clear purpose. This doesn't make him a bad person. It's just that you wish he'd move out of the way from the movie's more intriguing aspects, notably the dynamics of the dour Valcos.

Gandolfini and O'Hara are so gritty and wryly burned-out together that you want to express-mail them to another movie in time for next Christmas.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Surviving Christmas

Starring Ben Affleck, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara and Christina Applegate

Directed by Mike Mitchell

Rated PG-13

Released by DreamWorks

Time 92 minutes

Sun Score *1/2

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