In "Surviving Christmas," Ben Affleck plays Drew Latham, a cocky, soulless advertising exec (do the movies know another kind?) who in the throes of holiday desolation visits the family currently residing in the suburban Chicago home of his childhood with an offer of a quarter of a million dollars if they'll let him move in for Christmas. The family, headed by James Gandolfini and Catherine O'Hara, goes along with it. You, on the other hand, might want to see "Tarnation" or "Vera Drake" instead.
"Surviving Christmas" is exactly what's wrong with Hollywood: No one responsible for this thing seems ever to have lived outside the 310 area code or had a family or been lonely. It's the sort of stupid swill that gets spewed out by a studio committee, slapped together without a brain, a heart, or a good idea about where to put a camera or when to cut a scene. The finished product (calling it a movie would be like categorizing Spam as meat) is then pumped out to the megaplexes of America by a machine you can imagine only someone like the Grinch cranking.
Drew insists that the participating family, the Valcos, sign a contract stipulating that he gets to do things like sleep in his old room. This means the Valcos' teenage son (Josh Zuckerman) will have to surf the Internet for porn somewhere else. The family will also have to shop, sled, and smile, if they want the money, so they do. Hardly an eyelash is batted upon the arrival of the actor Drew has hired to play his grandpa Doo-Dah (Bill Macy). Affleck is fully invested in this situation, airborne with fake cheer. But that winning smile of his has curdled into the cheese-eating grin of a guy who's just deposited the studio's check. Rarely has Affleck's boardroom charm been harder to stomach. (Although Randy Edelman's score might be more revolting.)
You'd think the looks of contempt and loathing that Gandolfini and O'Hara wear throughout would be aimed at Drew, that they'd realize that having this obnoxious jackass in their house only lowers its property value. Alas, they seem to hate only themselves -- and this is before O'Hara vamps her way through a photo shoot that will become the punch line for a later gag.
Once the Valcos' appalled daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate), arrives to spar with Drew, you'd think "Surviving Christmas" might at least let some choice banter fly -- after all, it took four people to write this; surely one of them is a wit. It doesn't -- unless you consider Drew's calling Alicia a Mexican maid a show of wit. Not that it matters: Alicia just ends up falling for him anyway -- for free! Naturally, she's miffed when Drew's rich girlfriend Missy shows up at the Valcos' (surprise!) with her parents (surprise, again!) to meet who they think are his parents. Cue all the sex jokes!
This is a disgusting little sitcom that happily rewards Drew's smugness, self-entitlement, and brattiness with love and affection. To wonder why he's not pulling this stunt on his own biological family is to overlook the possibility that he already has. "Surviving Christmas" seems to have no problem with the idea that people warm to Drew because he's rich. You keep waiting for someone to mean it when they tell him "no."
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.