Jul 6, 2010
Surviving Christmas (2004) (part 1 of 7)
The Cast of Characters:
Drew Latham (Ben Affleck). A handsome, successful, wealthy, privileged executive with a spacious apartment and a hot girlfriend. Of course, as is the case with these types of movie characters, he’s unhappy. We’re supposed to sympathize with him, when what we really want to do is bludgeon him.
Tom Valco (James Gandolfini). A blue collar guy in a loveless marriage who decides to rent out his home and family for the holidays. Gandolfini plays him like Tony Soprano, but far more world-weary. Imagine Tony if The Sopranos made it to season 20.
Christine Valco (Catherine O’Hara). Tom’s put-upon wife, who barely questions the highly questionable decisions made by her husband. And in a movie purported to be a comedy, the most comically gifted performer is given nothing to do.
Alicia Valco (Christina Applegate). The daughter who comes home to visit, and is surprised by her family’s new arrangement. In order to justify all the disgusting behavior, she’s positioned as the movie’s moral center and the lone voice of reason. But it all gets flushed down the toilet when she eventually falls in love with the repugnant Drew.
Brian Valco (Josh Zuckerman). The obligatory teenage son. He’s anxious, has a short fuse, and his chronic masturbation is a constant topic of conversation. In other words, a typical teenager. In other other words, completely insufferable.
Every year, we’re treated to generous gifts from movie studios by way of sentimental holiday films in which…
Check that. Decades back, Hollywood came to understand there was serious money to be made in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Kids are out of school for long stretches, and their parents usually have some time off as well. Many look for relief from holiday stress or to avoid the throngs in the mall by seeking refuge in darkened theaters.
But after a while, the studios became complacent during this cash-cow season. Not only would they save some of their tentpole blockbusters for the end of the year, but they also began belching out generic “holiday-themed” films that were little more than weak attempts to score a November/December release date.
And creeping into these films was a constant theme: the holidays are a dismal time to spend with your family, because they are all head cases.
Family dysfunction is a subject that filmmakers never seem to tire of, because it’s an easy target. Why, everyone thinks their family is nuts! Right. This psychological blind spot was addressed nicely by Joe Walsh years ago in his anthem “Life’s Been Good”:
Everybody’s so different/
I haven’t changed
I haven’t changed
Another untruth that constantly comes from Hollywood is that the holidays are a time of elevated levels of anxiety and depression. But the canard that suicide rates increase during the holidays has been disproven with hard statistics; Incidents of suicide actually go down around this time of year. But a pesky little thing like facts sure wasn’t going to stand in the way of the makers of Surviving Christmas.
The film was directed by Mike Mitchell, a former writer for SpongeBob SquarePants who was also behind the cultural touchstone Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo, and the TV series Greg the Bunny. Adding to the mix was the writing team of Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, whose claim to fame is writing Josie and the Pussycats.
But the result of this all-star collaboration was deemed problematic, and another pair of writers was called in to fix things. Unfortunately, this eleventh-hour repair work was cutting into a tight shooting schedule, and filming began without a finished script. Always a bad sign.
DreamWorks understood later that their finished product was a mess. Looking at their release slate that December, they saw that Surviving Christmas was going to go up against the likes of The Incredibles, National Treasure, and ironically enough, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. They decided if there was any chance at profitability, they would have to resort to a calendar-based scheme.
Their gambit was to become the first holiday-themed film of the year, hoping that would draw some interest. Thus, this Christmas movie was released more than a week before Halloween. It’s hard to quantify how successful this maneuver was, but I’d guess the paltry $15 million gross would have been even more miniscule had it faced off against the juggernauts of November.
So let’s explore this cinematic equivalent of what you might find in the manger… specifically, underneath the lowing cattle. And let us behold our players in this pageant. Oh come, let us abhor them.