If you feel a strong sense of deja vu while watching “Surviving Christmas,” it may be because you saw David Spade’s last movie, “Dickie Roberts,” with which it shares–apart from the holiday theme–its basic plot. In that movie Spade played an erstwhile child star who “hired” a family to provide him with the normal childhood experiences he never had so that he could jump-start his career. In this one Ben Affleck plays a rich fellow who pays the family now living in his childhood home to take him into their circle for the Christmas season, giving him a warm, fuzzy experience that may make him a less troubled and lonely person. In both cases, of course, romance blossoms. Dickie eventually fell for his family’s neglected mom; Affleck’s Drew Latham has one of those cute, opposites-attract, on-and-off relationships with his hosts’ daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate), who unexpectedly returns home for an infusion of holiday cheer, too.
Recycling of plots is nothing new in Hollywood, of course, and the earlier version is very often superior. In the present instance that’s rather surprising, though, simply because the first movie starred the incredibly irritating Spade. I never thought that I’d be citing one of his pictures as better in any sort of comparison, but “Dickie Roberts” was much funnier than “Surviving Christmas,” and, as unlikely as it seems, Spade was much more likable than Affleck manages to be.
That may be because though the reason given for Dickie Roberts’ hiring of a family was pretty dumb, he had least had a reason. Latham literally has none; his decision to offer Tom and Christine Valco (James Gandolfino and Catherine O’Hara) big bucks to pretend to be his parents is just a spur-of-the-moment thing, and so everything that follows from it has an arbitrary, manufactured quality that makes the movie nothing more than a series of artificial sketches that miss far more often than they hit. The mixture of overwrought farce and sticky sentimentality that marks the script, contrived by no fewer than four writers, would be hard to stomach with a perfectly-chosen cast, but Affleck proves an especially wrong-headed choice. On-screen almost constantly, he gives a performance that offers nothing beyond self-conscious mugging and near-bellowing delivery of his lines. Though it’s near heresy to raise Cary Grant’s name in comparison, Affleck’s manic approach rivals the misbegotten performance that great star gave in “Arsenic And Old Lace”–probably Grant’s absolutely worst time on film–in its level of exaggeration and charmlessness. It makes watching “Christmas” kind of an endurance test, like sitting through a bad touring company of “The Jerk Who Came to Dinner.” The agility of the supporting cast can’t compensate for this central miscalculation. Gandolfini and O’Hara are both pros, and his gruffness and her wackiness pay dividends even in substandard material like this. Applegate’s attractiveness comes through despite the chilliness of her character, just as it did in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” and Josh Zuckerman manages to make Brian, the Valco’s stereotypical horny son and a hopeless cliche, reasonably agreeable nonetheless; veteran Bill Macy, of “Maude” fame, even gets by as the geezer Drew adds to the family as his supposed grandfather. But Jennifer Morrison and Stephanie Faracy can’t do anything with the dreadful roles of Latham’s girlfriend and her mother, and David Selby looks positively unwell as her father. The technical credits are better than the script deserves, though Randy Edelman’s bouncy score over-italicizes every predictable turn of the plot.
When “Surviving Christmas” gets around to its big revelations at the close, it turns out that the Christmas scenario Drew has fashioned for the Valco household is a complete fabrication–something that makes absolutely no sense within the context of the plot as a whole but allows for a smiles-mixed-with-tears series of climaxes in which every familial rift is cured and all loneliness finally banished. But the phoniness of Latham’s hallucination seems oddly appropriate in view of the phoniness of the movie as a while. It’s a commonplace that the holiday season leads to despondency and suicidal thoughts in many people, but though “Surviving Christmas” isn’t bad enough to invite an increase in that sort of behavior, you may nonetheless find that surviving a picture this annoying won’t be easy.