2½ stars (out of 4)
Ben Affleck: great talk show guest, bad actor.
Fun guy to have a beer with, not so much if he's acting.
This, of course, does not mean that Benny shouldn't be in pictures. It's Hollywood, people. What he needs to do--as an acteur--is to find projects in which it just doesn't matter, in which he can simply be Ben.
"Armageddon"--the greatest asteroid-drilling film of all time--was one of those projects. "Surviving Christmas" is another.
His latest foray into broad comedy--which was filmed in Chicago and stars plenty of folk who know their craft, such as Catherine O'Hara, James Gandolfini and late bloomer Christina Applegate--has Affleck playing Drew Latham, a smooth-talking, hotshot Chicago adman whose latest account is fat-free, pre-spiked eggnog. Drew's got everything a guy could ever want: a gorgeous, minimalist loft (with hardwood floors to die for) and a gorgeous, minimali-, I mean, materialistic girlfriend.
Everything, that is, except a family with which to spend the Christmas holidays. Poor Ben! I mean, Drew!
Thinking on his feet like a seasoned ad pitcher, Drew decides to return to his childhood home (in Lincolnwood, spelled Lincoln Wood) and strike a deal with the family living in his old house: $250,000 for Tom and Christine Valco (Gandolfini and O'Hara) to pretend to be Drew's real family for the holidays and create contractually obligated Christmas cheer. As Christine says, "I'm faking it anyway, so might as well get paid."
So Drew moves into his old room (displacing Valco son Brian and his porn-factory computer), forces "Dad" to wear a Santa cap and "Mom" to make hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows, hires a local actor to play his grandpa, Doo-Dah, and pens a heartwarming script for all to read at the dinner table.
Laughs ensue, some real ones.
The writing team, including Jeffrey Ventimilia and Joshua Sternin, both former sitcom writers who dabbled in "The Simpsons," "The Critic" and "Murphy Brown," get in a few truly funny one-liners and cute gags, and director Mike Mitchell thankfully takes advantage of O'Hara's frazzled-yet-deadpan comic brilliance.
And did I mention that this is not just a comedy, but a romantic comedy? Enter Valco daughter Alicia (Applegate), a career girl home for the holidays who at first throws off Drew's walk down memory lane (he never had a sister and tries to revise his script with Alicia as the maid, Consuela) but ends up well let's just say there's some incestuous kissing.
Like any comedy of foibles worth its salt, "Christmas" flaunts a real dearth of curiosity. Alicia hardly probes when she comes home to find a stranger in pajamas eating out of her fridge. And only near the finale does any Valco inquire as to Drew's biological family.
Affleck seems to think he's in a feature length "SNL" sketch with Jimmy Fallon--smirking under his serious face and winging it. But really, what's he got to lose? (See: Affleck, Lopez with; Affleck, "Reindeer Games"; and Affleck, Larry King on.)
As light, fluffy, cockle-warming holiday entertainment, this thing is pretty sweet. Maybe Jennifer Garner is good for him.
Directed by Mike Mitchell; written by Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont, Jeffrey Ventimilia and Joshua Sternin; photographed by Peter Collister and Tom Priestly Jr.; edited by Craig McKay; production designed by Caroline Hanania; music by Randy Edelman; produced by Jenno Topping and Betty Thomas. A Dreamworks Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:32. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual content, language and a brief drug reference).
Drew Latham - Ben Affleck
Tom Valco - James Gandolfini
Alicia Valco - Christina Applegate
Christine Valco - Catherine O'Hara
Brian Valco - Josh Zuckerman
Doo-Dah - Bill Macy