2 Stars – Shallow
For those who celebrate Christmas in all its depth of spiritual meaning, “Surviving Christmas” is a cynical disappointment. Beginning with an ad campaign pitch that suggests Christmas is merely a time of having to endure intolerable family gatherings and the suggested solution is to use alcoholic eggnog to survive the experience, the film walks us through a horrific Christmas experience. The underlying theme is that we all long for family and we only imperfectly fulfill that longing, but for those who truly celebrate the Birth of Jesus within a family of God, the film never even hints at the true meaning of the holiday.
That is not to say that the film has no value. It is too often true that Christmas has become a “garish pageant” with materialistic purposes and difficult family gatherings. Many do not experience the holidays as holy-days, but as a burden and a bother that never lives up to our hopes and expectations. But the answer given by Mike Mitchell’s film is woefully incomplete.
The central figure of the film is a quirky multi-millionaire named Drew Latham (Ben Affleck). As an advertising executive, Drew is a genius at manipulating people. Though his abilities make him a financial success, he doesn’t understand that life is not one long commercial. He doesn’t understand that real relationships require authenticity based on reality.
When he discovers that his girlfriend would rather be at home with her family on Christmas than in Fiji with him, and that he has no friend close enough to invite him to their family gathering for the holidays, Drew longs for a family Christmas. Returning to the home of his childhood, he offers the family living there $250,000 to “act as his family” for the yuletide season. This attempt to “create” a meaningful family moment erupts predictably into the charade it really is.
Although most of us do not pay others to create a family, the underlying thesis is fascinating. How often do we pay for an “experience,” whether it is for our anniversary or vacation or even an evening’s pleasure? How often do we put on a mask and act as though we are someone other than who we are, or expect others to put “on a front” and be other than who they are?
The family Drew rents is in shambles. The father, Tom Valco (James Gondolfini), is a gruff and angry man who has alienated himself from his wife and son. Mrs. Valco (Catherine O’Hara) is a lonely woman who has surrendered to her emptiness and is planning to leave her husband after the holidays. Their son Brian (Josh Zuckerman) and daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate) are equally lost in their own unique ways.
Predictably, Drew’s quirky plan to create a “fun family Christmas” breaks through the shell of the family and the stress of their “playing their assigned parts” as a “happy family” begin to have an effect on all of them. Predictably, the whole thing collapses and all that is left is the real people, with real feelings and real relationships.
Christmas is not something to survive, but something to celebrate as we experience its true meaning. Rather than Drew Latham moving to a state of joy and redemption, “Surviving Christmas” leaves us in a greater state of cynicism than when we entered the theater. It is hard to find that funny!
- Is it your experience that Christmas is a dreaded holiday or a meaningful holy-day? Why do you think this is so?
- When a family is in crisis, such as the Valco family was with divorce imminent, it doesn’t take much fun, love or change to bring about some healing. What do you think happened in the Valco family after this film?
- When Drew takes his new “family” to the diner where he had spent every Christmas since he was a child eating pancakes, what do you believe this did to him? If you believe it was healing, how was it healing?
- The lack of any spirituality in anyone’s life was especially evident since the holiday they were celebrating is the birth of Jesus Christ. How do you think belonging to a church community might have changed both Drew and the Valco family?