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Surviving Christmas

The song "Silent Night" will take on a whole new meaning for theaters showing "Surviving Christmas," an almost mirth-free, poorly conceived comedy destined to offer Ben Affleck bashers satchels full of new ammunition. Even people who dread seeing relatives over the holidays -- part of the film's central conceit -- may be inclined to linger long after dinner is finished if this sour turkey is presented as their means of escape.

Cast:
Drew Latham - Ben Affleck Tom Valco - James Gandolfini Alicia Valco - Christina Applegate Christine Valco - Catherine O'Hara Brian Valco - Josh Zuckerman Doo-Dah - Bill Macy Missy Vangilder - Jennifer Morrison

The song “Silent Night” will take on a whole new meaning for theaters showing “Surviving Christmas,” an almost mirth-free, poorly conceived comedy destined to offer Ben Affleck bashers satchels full of new ammunition. Even people who dread seeing relatives over the holidays — part of the film’s central conceit — may be inclined to linger long after dinner is finished if this sour turkey is presented as their means of escape.

Despite the kind of running time normally reserved these days for animation, pic feels like an incredibly long sit, nearly running out of ideas before a forced conclusion that actually yields a few grudging chuckles, to be filed under the heading of too little, too late. The biggest draw, ultimately, other than chronicling Affleck’s misguided choice of roles, is seeing James Gandolfini in his most Tony Soprano-like feature turn — but that may cause many to wish they were actually home watching the HBO show.

Virtually devoid of any set-up to establish who the main character is or why we should tolerate him, Affleck plays Drew, a wealthy advertising exec (how wealthy becomes clear later) whose girlfriend dumps him right before Christmas. Desperate not to spend the holiday alone, he follows a shrink’s half-assed advice and visits his boyhood home, hoping to shed bad memories.

A not-so-cute “Who’s the weirdo on our lawn?” meeting later, he finds himself in his old house, now occupied by working stiff Tom (Gandolfini), his frazzled wife Christine (Catherine O’Hara) and their teenage son, who stays sequestered in his room downloading porn.

Seized by the sort of inspiration that only a movie with four credited writers can readily possess, Drew stumbles upon the notion of paying the family to take him in through Christmas — for the tidy sum of $250,000, no less. Apparently, reality TV shows have spurred their very own kind of inflation index.

It’s around here that the movie drifts from plain bad to awkward and creepy, as Drew insists on calling Christine and Tom “Mom” and “Dad,” and recreating scenes from his childhood. Not surprisingly, their late-arriving daughter (Christina Applegate) has a hard time playing along, though we’re expected to believe that she quickly falls for a guy exhibiting behavior that screams for an intervention, if not full-blown institutionalization.

Director Mike Mitchell (of “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” renown) is so hard-pressed to sustain this ill-conceived premise that he resorts to a handful of musical montages to pad the action — never a good sign for a 90-minute comedy. Affleck, meanwhile, plays Drew as an overgrown kid who seldom speaks in less than a bellow, which might be more believable if he wasn’t indulging in a financial hostage situation, periodically ratcheting up his donation to retain his foothold in the house.

Gandolfini and O’Hara manage to generate a few moments between them, but the rest of the cast — including veteran comedy actor Bill Macy as Affleck’s rented granddad — are as frozen by the impenetrable script as the film’s icy Chicago backdrop.

As for Affleck, at least he’s battle-hardened in the field of dodging pans. Indeed, having survived “Gigli” and lived to tell the tale, surviving “Christmas” should be a relative breeze.

Surviving Christmas

Production: A DreamWorks release of a Tall Trees and LivePlanet production. Produced by Jenno Topping, Betty Thomas. Executive producer, Patricia Whitcher. Directed by Mike Mitchell. Screenplay, Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont, Jeffrey Ventimilia, Joshua Sternin; story by Kaplan, Elfont.

Crew: Camera (Technicolor), Peter Collister, Tom Priestly Jr.; editor, Craig McKay; music, Randy Edelman; music supervisors, Mary Ramos, Michelle Silverman; production designer, Caroline Hanania; art director, Sue Chan; set decorator, Lisa Fischer; costume designer, Mary Jane Fort; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/ SDDS), Willie Burton; supervising sound editor, J. Paul Huntsman; associate producer, Erin Stam; assistant director, Josh King; second unit director/stunt coordinator, Doug Coleman; casting, Juel Bestrop, Jeanne McCarthy. Reviewed at Mann Plaza 2, Los Angeles, Oct. 18, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 90 MIN.

With: Drew Latham - Ben Affleck Tom Valco - James Gandolfini Alicia Valco - Christina Applegate Christine Valco - Catherine O'Hara Brian Valco - Josh Zuckerman Doo-Dah - Bill Macy Missy Vangilder - Jennifer Morrison

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