Really, critics and audiences ought to turn thoughts and wallets discreetly away from Surviving Christmas, ignoring the sight as if Santa had just stepped in droppings from Donner and Blitzen. But how can we, when handed such an unseasonably early holiday turkey stuffed with helpings of Ben Affleck and James Gandolfini? The former has, for reasons far exceeding his thespian capabilities, become a celebrity the size (and substance) of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon; the latter, while manifestly ambivalent about celebrity, is rightfully admired for his superb skills in playing Tony Soprano, the most affecting fictional character in popular culture today.
What the two are doing together in such a misbegotten comedy of hypocritical family pieties, cheap anticonsumerist postures, and stale Internet jokes (a kid surfs the Web for porn!) is a question best left to their agents. But what’s ours to figure out is how, in the year 2004, we’ve still got this kind of load dumped on us.
Affleck, none ought to be surprised to learn, plays Drew Latham, a rich, aggressive media bigwig in Chicago who’s a dud at love, perhaps because he’s a self-centered workaholic and also, perhaps, because Affleck currently sports a moussed brunet thatch of a hairdo similar in texture to a 1970s Flokati rug. Gandolfini, as everyone who has seen the trailer already knows, hunches over a dining table as working-stiff family guy Tom Valco, a man who has Tony Soprano’s posture but Ernest Hemingway’s facial hair (at least, that’s where the actor’s beard will be put to use in a future film project). In his pursuit of psychological solace in a Christmas crisis of loneliness, Drew returns to his childhood home, where, he discovers, the Valcos now reside — and buys himself into the family for the holiday, promising the shnooks money while alternately throwing tantrums and healing the Valcos’ own private rifts, the way boors played by celebrities often magically do. (Other family members are played, with no clue as to how it’s come to this, by Catherine O’Hara and Christina Applegate.) There are no survivors here.
Rarely has a happy ending felt less like a gift freely given or truly earned.