Film Fare...with Mark Moorehead
Surviving Christmas

General Audiences: C

Think Bad Santa in Chicago Married With Children and you get the picture. This low-budget film will probably appeal to fans of The Sopranos, Ben Affleck and few others.

Family Audiences: D

Dysfunctional trailer-trash family with porn-obsessed son tolerates eccentric millionaire at Christmas. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and brief drug reference.

 Surviving Christmas arrives in theaters a week before Halloween. It’s an appropriate date for a black comedy that is sure to frighten away the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future--and anyone else seeking to rekindle the holiday spirit.

Hollywood is attempting to capitalize on the success of last season’s surprise hit Bad Santa starring Billy Bob Thornton as the crude and vulgar shopping mall Santa who revels in ripping Christmas apart at the seams. A clever producer must have been thinking, “What if Bad Santa had a family of like minds?”

Ben Affleck stars as Drew Latham, a wealthy man with a not-so-wonderful life determined to take a trip down memory lane by returning to his idyllic childhood home during the holidays. Unfortunately, no one can really go back home and relive the past because it’s never the same. That doesn’t stop family-starved Drew from asking the strangers, now occupying his old house, to adopt him for the holidays.

The Valcos’s think this guy is a few quarts low until he offers them $250,000 to go along with the charade and do whatever he asks of them. James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) plays Mr. Valcos, a working-class scrooge more than willing play along until the newly adopted member of the family pushes the holiday envelope a bit too far.

Drew cajoles the Valcos’s into joining him in such typical holiday rituals as Christmas shopping at the local mall, buying a Christmas tree and singing carols. Since the Valcos’s are essentially heathens and Christmas has always been a humbug, each new holiday tradition exercise begins to grate on them.

And, when the unsuspecting Valcos daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate) arrives home, the hostility in such close environs rises quickly. Alicia has no intention of adopting a new “brother,” and thinks her parents sold out to a lunatic.

Her morose sibling Brian (Josh Zuckerman) shares his sister’s antipathy for this intruder since he was forced to give up his adult-themed bedroom.

To complete the fake family ensemble, Drew hires a local (Bill Macy) to play the role of his grandfather and insists he move into the Valcos’ home. These escalating demands on Tom Valcos reach a humiliating crescendo when he is forced to sing O Christmas Tree with Drew in front of the newly decorated tree. This is the final straw. Tom can’t take it anymore and slaps Drew on the head with a snow shovel. Are you laughing yet?

Applegate’s uninspired character is as close as it comes to a normal person. As the love interest she predictably warms up to Drew in spite of his mental imbalance.

Affleck’s portrayal of an abnormal man who would go to any length to avoid being alone during the holidays is unconvincing. He races through the motions of celebrating Christmas traditions with the sincerity of Donald Trump. If you’re going to play the straight man in a black comedy about Christmas, we gotta believe.

Gandolfini, on the other hand, plays a serviceable anti-Santa with his redneck attitude, crude jokes and cruel slapstick. It’s too bad Zuckerman overplayed the alienated teen-age son bit. He could have been a contender. At least his continuous expulsion from room to room and eventually to the garage provides some comic relief in this bleak Christmas satire.

You’ll survive Halloween and Christmas much better if you pass on this one and rent funnier holiday fare like Christmas Vacation.