Monday, December 17, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 17: Renting a Family for Christmas

There are moments when I feel I am blessed to have my family.  That sounds like somewhat of a backhanded compliment I realize (I can already hear my mother saying "What do you mean 'moments'? Aren't you always blessed to have us?") and you'd be correct.  It does sound a lot like I don't care for my family except for those 'blessed' moments.  However, if I were to say that I am always happy and glad to be a part of my family you might be confused as to what I might mean.  Actually, it's fairly simple.  Sometimes I see other people talk about (and even interact with their families) and it causes me pain to watch.  It's a general fact that there are a great many of people who don't enjoy their family's company due to varying reasons (and some because they don't have a family of their own) but it still distresses me to see.  I think for a family to be as close as we are is a treasure and something to be celebrated over the holidays.  This leads us somewhat into today's film as it addresses the chief problem of the protagonist, in that he feels like he has lost that 'family' connection and he wants to regain it.  How he goes about it...well, that's another issue entirely and one that gives the film it's main source of conflict.  It's time to head home for the holidays, and for Surviving Christmas.

Drew Latham (Ben Affleck) is a wealthy advertising executive. Just before Christmas, he surprises his girlfriend Missy (Jennifer Morrison) with first class tickets to Fiji. She is horrified that he would want to spend Christmas away from his family. Citing the fact that Drew has never even introduced her to his family, she concludes that he will never get serious about their relationship and dumps him. Drew has his assistant send her a Cartier bracelet to apologize. Desperate not to spend Christmas alone, Drew calls all of his contacts to find a place to stay on Christmas, but he is not close enough to anyone to be invited. He tracks down Dr. Freeman (Stephen Root) at the airport, hoping to squeeze in a therapy session. The hurried doctor tells him to list all of his grievances and then burn them at his childhood home. The house is now occupied by the Valcos (James Gandolfini and Catherine O'Hara), who wonder what Drew is doing on their front lawn. When he sets his grievances on fire, Tom Valco  sneaks up behind him and knocks him out with a shovel. After he comes to, Drew explains what he was doing and asks for a tour of the house. Thrilled to see his old room, Drew impetuously offers Tom $250,000 to let him spend Christmas with the Valcos. Tom accepts, and Drew's lawyer draws up a contract that requires the Valcos to pose as his family. This action sets into motion a strange and surreal Christmas for everyone involved as Drew slowly infiltrates the family and begins to meddle both to their benefit and detriment.  Will Drew's presence help this family, or will it destroy it?

I recall Surviving Christmas getting fairly foul reviews upon it's release and I can certainly see why.  For every wonderful and subversive comic idea, there are about two or three jokes that feel like they came from another movie.  It's almost as though the filmmakers decided that their dark and cynical idea was a little too dark and cynical.  Still, for this film to have a 7% on Rottentomatoes.com is rather harsh I would say.  I think it is a funny film and a fine film to watch, particularly in the fresh way it deals with that so-familiar formula of  "a family gets together and loves/annoys each other at Christmas."  It was a novel idea to have Drew be so shattered and eccentric that he literally rents a family to love him this Christmas...it's too bad other choices don't work.  For example, casting Ben Affleck was a mistake.  Now I am NOT part of the old "Ben sucks" club that has curiously evaporated since he became a director and I actually find him to be a very good performer, but he is far too attractive and poised to really sell Drew as a character.  I mean I can't imagine that a guy who looks like him couldn't find some other bimbo to spend Christmas with.  They can sell it as him being 'sensitive' all they want, but it doesn't work.  Also, the way that the majority of the family (except one) all take to Drew's crazy sauce feels a little convenient.  I think more conflict could have been achieved through them wanting the money but also resisting him more, and it would have made Christina Applegate's character a bit less of a shrew in comparison.  Still, it is a nice film and certainly worth watching if you want some perspective on your own natural family at Christmas.  Just imagine how much worse this could all be?


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