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Review: 'Surviving Christmas' hard to endure

By Paul Clinton
James Gandolfini, left, and Ben Affleck in "Surviving Christmas"
Ben Affleck
James Gandolfini

(CNN) -- The fact that DreamWorks is dumping "Surviving Christmas" -- a holiday movie -- on the market in October should say it all. Perhaps the studio is being compassionate and releasing it early in an effort not to spoil our holidays.

Of course, it's just in time for Halloween, and it is a scary movie. Unfortunately it's supposed to be a comedy.

There is an adage: The more screenwriters involved in a film, the worse the script. "Surviving Christmas" proves the point. It's penned by Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont, Jeffrey Ventimilia and Joshua Sternin. But this script is so bad I'm surprised there were only four writers involved.

Ben Affleck seems like a nice guy, and has an extremely likable screen presence. But he's not a great actor. Sure, he's a movie star, but a lack of acting ability hasn't stopped hundreds of stars in the past, and it's doubtful it will in the future. But what's really aggravating is Affleck's unfailing knack for picking really bad projects. He's done it again with this holiday turkey.

Sharing Affleck's stunning lack of judgment are his co-stars James Gandolfini, Christina Applegate and Catherine O'Hara -- good actors, one and all. Now in all fairness, the premise does have a glimmer -- I said a glimmer -- of a good idea hidden away deep (deep) inside. Too bad it was written with an eggbeater.

Affleck plays Drew Latham, an advertising executive whose life seems golden. He has the perfect job, the perfect loft apartment and seemingly the perfect girlfriend, Missy Vangilder, played by Jennifer Morrison.

When he suggests that he and Missy take off to Fiji during the yuletide holidays, she freaks out. To her, his reluctance to spend Christmas in the bosom of their families is the last straw for their relationship. In fact, Drew has never even mentioned his family, let alone introduced her to them. After stamping her little Gucci-encased feet, she storms out of his loft and supposedly his life.

Then in a sudden, and totally unexplained, change of course, Drew becomes desperate to spend a traditional Christmas with someone -- anyone. After exhausting his personal phone book in an effort to find company for the holidays, he consults a shrink in an airport -- don't ask -- questioning how he can release his resentments. He's told to make a list and then burn it, thereby making the negative feelings go away.

He heads for his childhood house buried deep in suburbia. His resentments apparently go way back. Home sweet home is now occupied by the Valco family. Christine and Tom Valco are played by Gandolfini and O'Hara, and their daughter, Alicia, is portrayed by Applegate.

The family is rounded out by the youngest son, played by newcomer Josh Zuckerman, who is the only one in this film who is the least bit believable. Of course, he doesn't have much to do, and as the old saying goes "less is more."

At first Drew's visit home is intended to be brief. He begins to burn the list in the front yard of the house but is knocked unconscious with a snow shovel by Tom. Tom apparently has resentments of his own involving strangers burning stuff on his property.

At about this point, I really wanted to go home and burn my Christmas decorations.

After he wakes up, one huge comedic moment -- not -- leads to another and soon he's being given a tour of the house by the less than enthusiastic Tom and Christine. Finally they give him the heave-ho, but he immediately returns with a plan.

He wants to move in with the family for the holidays and recapture his memories of Christmases gone by. Needless to say, the Valcos are underwhelmed. But when he offers them $250,000 -- say what! -- they change their minds quicker than a politician can kiss a baby for a photo op.

Now the ruse begins, only to be interrupted by Alicia's coming home for the holidays. She thinks her family is nuts for going along with Drew's idea, money or no money (a nice reality check in this totally idiotic film). One thing leads to another and blah, blah, blah.

There is not one iota of motivation for any of the characters' behavior as this film careens from scene to scene. The whole movie feels like it was chopped up like confetti and put back together with a glue gun.

Every Christmas cliche is dragged out and roasted like chestnuts on an open fire. Applegate appears at times to be embarrassed by the whole thing, and even Affleck has a desperate gleam in his eye. Gandolfini and O'Hara seem to be soldiering on like they're on a trip to the dentist for a root canal. Morrison, however, is awful. She delivers her lines as if she's reading dialogue off the back of a cereal box.

They say the holidays can be emotionally hard for many people. If you're the least bit depressed, do not see this film. Surviving Christmas is one thing, surviving this movie is quite another.

Bottom line: Bah, humbug.

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