By Jack Ford.
With so many Christmas films (turn to the Christmas24 channel and see for yourself), and a lot of them ultimately the same, the fleeting nature of the non-genre means a lot of them will pass us by before we can give them their fair dues – which could arguably the case with the 2004 Mike Mitchell comedy Surviving Christmas.
Released in late 2004, Surviving Christmas opened quietly to largely negative reviews, as was the standard for films starring Ben Affleck at the time. It was dismissed as a low comedy without charm, and before you decide it’s not worth reading any more about a forgotten film that was panned on release, just wait. The finer points of this festive comedy were potentially lost on those who initially dismissed it.
The film opens with a sequence of wholesome Christmas scenes you could put on a card, only for them all to start taking darker turns. For example, an old woman takes a roast turkey from the oven, and then puts her head in. The film could be summed up in this one juxtaposition: behind the sheen and purity of Christmas iconography there is a dark reality the season forces us to hide.
We soon meet the central character of the film, advertising executive Drew Latham (Affleck). He’s a man not moved by Christmas, so much so he has booked a trip to Fiji over the festive period for him and his girlfriend, Missy, to get away from it all. She’s outraged and insists they spend Christmas with family. When pushed, Drew is mysteriously reluctant to let her meet his family, which is the final straw for their relationship.
Drew’s vast and spacious apartment starts to feel more and more empty, and his isolation leads him back to his childhood home. It’s here he comes to terms with his problems with Christmas, and realises what he wants is to have the same warm, happy feeling he got from the holiday as a kid. He meets the current residents of the house, the Valcos, after patriarch Tom (James Gandolfini) mistakes him for a vandal and hits him on the head with a snow shovel. Instead of pressing charges, Drew asks if he can act as their son for Christmas. It’s a strange offer, but it comes with the promise of $250,000. The Valcos accept.
It quickly becomes apparent the Valcos are not the most festive family, after seeing how short-tempered and curmudgeonly Tom and his wife Christine (Catherine O’Hara) are, and it’s no surprise given the discovery that they are soon to divorce. Elsewhere, their teenage son Brian (Josh Zuckerman) has no time for family but plenty of time for his computer (you can probably guess what for), and elder daughter Alicia (Christina Appelgate) just finds the whole thing too weird.
Drew tries to get his newly-adopted family into the spirit by taking them Christmas shopping, decorating the house and making them dress in seasonal attire, much to the Valcos chagrin. Despite this, something’s still not working. No one’s feeling the cheer of Drew’s ideal Christmas. He steps up his effort by writing a script to be adhered to at all times, bringing in his elderly ‘Doo-Dah’ (or rather, a local actor he has paid to play Doo-Dah), even recreating a cherished childhood memory of Alicia.
Though he means well, Drew soon comes to realise all of this is artifice – he can bring the image of the perfect family Christmas to life, but with that does not come the feeling Christmas inspired in him, and in all of us, as kids. That same feeling won’t come to him again because he’s not a kid anymore, and he can’t have the perfect Christmas he wants because it’s something that doesn’t exist. It’s the same for all of us as well.
Surviving Christmas is not that cynical and downbeat, though. Instead, it takes a more realistic view of how the commercialized idea of the perfect Christmas and the expectations that come with it are unobtainable. It’s a reminder that the images of happy families we see in every shop window, catalogue and commercial at the end of the year are there just to get us to consume.
Advertisers tug at our heartstrings in the hope that doing so will also open our wallets, to get us all to think we can have that too once we have all the right components. Drew works in advertising, he knows its all a trick, but the idea even penetrates his mind. The increased tension he causes in the Valco household is the film’s surprisingly subtle way of saying that advertising is ruining Christmas, with the final shot serving as a reminder that it can be whatever you make of it. If you would be happy to spend Christmas with friends in a pancake house, then that’s fine.
As for the film itself, it’s aware of itself enough to know the scenario it’s presenting is an unusual one and never acts like the events of the film could ever happen in real life. In doing so, it takes away the discomfort we would feel seeing a grown man paying a family to take him in as their son, and gives us more room to laugh at the absurdity. It’s nowhere near perfect – there are some subplots that range from obvious to inexplicable – but it’s a fine farce with a sound message behind it.
More than a decade on, Surviving Christmas deserves another look. For anyone seeking an alternative Christmas film, one that is free of sentimentality, speaks to the part of them that feels that materialism and comemrcialisation has robbed the holiday of any meaning, all while making them laugh of course, look no further.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.