It's a Horrible Life 

The holiday season stumbles in with "Surviving Christmas."

A stranger to the rules of normal human interactions, Affleck charges his secretary with patching things up and begins to ponder the words family and holiday as if they signified exotic customs of some remote tribe. He resolves to get to the bottom of these mysteries by, naturally enough, showing up on the doorstep of his childhood home and offering a quarter of a million dollars to the present occupants, the Valcos, in return for the privilege of spending yuletide with them.

Drew nurtures a Pinocchioan aspiration to become fully human and thinks that immersing himself in a warm family circle will do the trick. Although he hopes he will find people who seem to have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell illustration, what he discovers is a dysfunction jamboree.

There's the surly father (a bearded James Gandolfini), jealously guarding his stash of salami and beer, as a dragon would his pile of gold. Meanwhile, his wife, played by the frequently inspired Catherine O'Hara, drifts into stunned, almost catatonic indifference to her marriage and everything else. The teenage son (Josh Zuckerman) can barely tear himself away from Internet porn long enough to hang his stocking by the chimney. And when the daughter shows up in the person of Christina Applegate, she exudes a childish petulance that seems to be this clan's distinguishing trait. In due course, Drew falls for her, and yet another gratuitous plot line lurches into motion.

Never very lively to begin with, the story frequently threatens to collapse. At such moments, the screenwriters have stuck to the same tactics: Bring in a new character or send an old one away for a while.

Not only does the indignant girlfriend inexplicably come flying back, but she also drags along her snobby parents to meet Drew's "family." Applegate storms out, appalled by Drew's advances and a scene or two later returns in a cuddly mood. Gandolfini decides his marriage is washed up and checks into a motel, but just moments later the whole episode is forgotten, and he's reunited with his cold cuts. Only O'Hara seems to strike the right note of response to these humorless inanities. Through it all, she has the air of one in another world, as if she'd sent her mind far, far away to a movie set where her talents could be put to proper use.

A sour, stereotyped peevishness pervades the whole affair. It gets old fast, but as the end approaches it is still with something like horror that we sense a noose of piety starting to tighten around doings on screen. Apologies are offered. Painful childhood memories are trotted out for our inspection and approval. Reconciliations loom. Humbug, anyone? h S


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