It's here. Not two months after it's theatrical defeat (nearly beating out From Justin to Kelly), Surving Christmas was rushed to DVD to cash in on the same holiday season it was supposed to spend in the theaters. But is it the type of trash the media has made all Ben Affleck movies out to be?
It is right before the holidays, and wealthy Drew Latham (Ben Affleck) makes the mistake of giving his girlfriend tickets for a holiday vacation instead of an engagement ring. In a state of fury, she tells him she will be spending the holidays with her family, like people should. So Drew calls just about everyone he knows in the book, trying to find friends to spend the holidays with, but it appears he's not all too popular. In desperation, he returns to the home he grew up in for his own sort of therapy. And he knocks on the door. He is greeted by the Valco family, Dad (James Gandolfini), Mom (Catherine O'Hara), and son Brian (Josh Zuckerman, who played a bald Young Dr. Evil in Austin Powers: Goldmember. With hair, he looks and sounds like he could be a young Zack Braff of Scrubs.) After an initial tour of his old home, Drew asks Dad if the Valcos will be his family just for the holidays. $275,000 is too much to pass up, so Dad says yes, and the whole family must go along. Little do they expect when they sign an official CONTRACT that Drew will be a whack job who wants them to perform every holiday tradition he did with his own family, to the point that he even hands out scripts for them to follow. But the last thing Drew expects is for the script to be re-written, which is what happens. Turns out the Valcos also have a daughter, Alicia (Christina Applegate), who comes home unexpectedly, and throws off Drew's entire holiday scenario, particularly since she thinks her family is nuts for agreeing to it, and is unwilling to play along.
Honestly, when I caught Gigli on cable, I never really understood what the negative hype was about. I've seen a lot worse movies than that. And I must say, the same goes for Surviving Christmas. It's very watchable, has a great cast, and is even somewhat funny. The two shining performances here come from Christina Applegate and Catherine O'Hara. Christina just lights up a screen, and her years of comedy have paid off, because she's naturally charismatic. But still, Catherine O'Hara definitely steals the show. She's no stranger to Christmas movies (Home Alone 1 & 2) and she's no stranger to screwball comedy (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind). Honestly, just about every moment in this movie that made me laugh out loud focused on her. Then there's James Gandolfini. This was the dullest performance in the whole movie. He was truly given nothing to work with here. It seems like he was directed to just stand there and make Tony Soprano-like threatening facial expressions at Ben Affleck's every action. There was no comic chemistry between the two male leads at all. As for Ben Affleck, on the bright side, he looked pretty cute in this film, and definitely has charm. And what I liked most about him was his character was completely different than the usual Ben Affleck presence. Unfortunately, being different for a change meant being mostly annoying (which he admits was the point in the DVD interview). He had a phony smile on his face the whole time like he was supposed to be losing his mind—which seemed over-the-top, because there wasn't a very strong lead up to him supposedly having a breakdown that would make him go the extremes he does in this film.
And that leads to the overall issues with the script. In all honesty, I have a feeling that the intention was for a dark comedy, and the studio probably read it and said, "can we lighten this up and make it more family fun?" The movie promised to be off-the-wall, but as it progressed, it quickly began to border on typical holiday sap. Unfortunately, it never delivered on either genre fully. I was hoping for something a bit more Bad Santa. And if you watch the alternate opening included in the DVD, you can see how the movie appears to have been sterilized. It doesn't serve an appetite for the "bah! Humbug!" in any of us, and it also fails to bring us the holiday cheer of, say, A Christmas Story. Still and all, it's reminiscent of a load of viewable, but never-gonna-be-a-classic Christmas films that have come out in the past decade. The obvious downfall of this film in theaters was the ludicrous October theatrical release.
You have two options on this one sided disc. There's the full-frame 1:33:1 aspect ratio, or the 1:85:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen TVs. There's no grain or pixilation noticeable in progressive scan, and the skin tones are quite natural. However, the blacks are on the gray side, edge enhancement causes somewhat rounded edges, and the color level is a hint too low, resulting in a rather bland picture. The print itself is mostly flawless, with few signs of dirt or dust.
You have the option of 5.1 surround in either English or French. The musical score benefits the most from the surround sound, which it uses to excellent effect. The rest of the film makes modest use of the surround system, and bass response is at an all-time low.
The disc launches automatically into previews, but they can be skipped. The main menu runs clips from the movie. There are 24 chapter breaks for scene selection, and subtitle options in English, French or Spanish. The Alternate Opening Sequence is letterboxed, and well worth a watch because it sets up a darker tone for what could have been a darker movie. And finally, there's an 11 minute "HBO Looks at Surviving Christmas" documentary which includes interviews with the cast and crew. In my opinion, they make too many promises about the hilarity levels in the film—except Catherine O'Hara….
Surviving Christmas is definitely holiday filler until the next standout Christmas comedy comes along. It's not the failure we'd expect from a Ben Affleck movie, it doesn't get you into the holiday spirit, it doesn't satisfy the desire for a darker holiday film that some might want, and it's not even worth watching for James Gandolfini. The shining star in this one is Catherine O'Hara. I just wish she'd been given more time on screen.