Sometimes, films are unjustly judged. Other times, popular opinion needs to be challenged. Either way, this content will likely be unpopular.
Ben Affleck isn’t often praised as an actor, particularly where the conversation concerns his range. In fact, he’s often listed among the most overrated actors in Hollywood, as his roles most often consist of mumbling, tight-lipped, stone-faced men. It’s not often Affleck really cuts loose on screen, so it may seem strange to think of him as a key part in a Christmas comedy – the cross-section of festive cheer and comedic energy is not a place that Affleck’s reputation necessarily lands him in.
Maybe it’s this that landed Surviving Christmas a critical panning, resulting in a box office bomb that was nominated for several Razzies. Despite this, it hasn’t been entirely forgotten, as it’s earned a status as one of those “awful” Christmas movies that are secretly good. However, it really isn’t a bad movie at all: it’s actually a solid festive comedy with a hugely talented cast that delivers genuine laughs throughout.
Ben Affleck stars as Drew Latham, a wealthy marketing executive who finds himself struggling to emotionally connect with his girlfriend Missy (Jennifer Morrison) at Christmas. Fed up with Drew’s difficulty with family and the holidays, Missy dumps him, prompting him to seek advice on how to overcome his unresolved issues. This is what leads him to his childhood home, where he meets its current occupants, the Valco family: father Tom (James Gandolfini), his wife Christine (Catherine O’Hara), son Brian (Josh Zuckerman), and daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate). He pays the Valcos to pretend to be his family for the holidays, hoping to use the opportunity to work through his deep-seated emotional issues.
It’s certainly an odd and relatively convoluted premise, but it’s one that gels well within the ill-defined Christmas genre. The holiday itself is central to the plot (unlike some Christmas movies, which aren’t really about Christmas at all), and the use of convenient and unlikely plot devices is as old as the film industry itself. Taking the perpetually-grumpy strengths of Gandolfini and offsetting them with Affleck’s unexpected manic charm works incredibly well in a comedic sense, especially when combined with the sharp wittiness of both O’Hara and Applegate. There’s a well-written and well-considered comedic balance within Surviving Christmas that’s easy to overlook, but it forms the backbone of the entire movie.
Surviving Christmas Doesn’t Reinvent The Wheel, But It Delivers Soundly Festive Comedy
Perhaps the main criticism of Surviving Christmas was its manic pacing and somewhat predictable story, but those are actually its two biggest assets. As a Christmas comedy, Surviving Christmas actually taps into the exact vein required for success: like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation before it (just without the wackier elements), it captures the true spirit of spending time with family at Christmas – it’s messy, it’s awkward, and it’s often painfully chaotic. What’s more, predictability is the mark of a good festive flick, with the established traditions and the message of yuletide love and acceptance central to the appeal of the entire genre.
With these elements considered, Surviving Christmas is actually a far better movie than critical analysis suggests. Ben Affleck’s performance is appropriately layered with manic moments and deeper introspection, and he slots into the dynamic of the Valco family with awkward comedic ease. It all contributes to a film that flows excellently from one scene to the next, with Drew’s wish for a perfect Christmas a sound reason for the movie to contain as many clichés as possible.
Surviving Christmas is a vaguely self-aware and genuinely funny comedy that has unjustly been landed with a poor reputation. Ben Affleck displays some unexpected comedic talent, showcasing his underestimated range, while Christina Applegate proves exactly why she’s one of Corner of Film’s most underrated actors with her own leading role. There’s very little not to enjoy about Surviving Christmas, and it certainly deserves another shake (if only in the spirit of the season).
Summary: Using the talents of a stellar comedic cast to create a perfect sense of festive chaos makes Surviving Christmas a deceptively strong Christmas comedy.
Highlights: The scene in which Drew’s lies come to a head in front of his girlfriend Missy – complete with his Black “grandfather” and his admission of kissing his pretend sister – pay off Surviving Christmas‘s potential in a big way.