Much of the public ire toward Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, expressed with almost cathartic abandon after Gigli limped into theaters, was pinned on pink diamonds, Bentleys, and other shows of gaudy excess. But the real problem might have been Affleck: The unpretentious, working-class Everyman from Boston, who once seemed like an outsider made good, had officially been swallowed up by the alien culture known as celebrity. It's that bizarre frat guy from Mars who turns up in Surviving Christmas, a sloppy comedy in which Affleck appears so deranged that deep concern seems a more appropriate response than laughter. Only a handful of actors, such as Johnny Depp or Owen Wilson, can pull off this sort of whimsy, because they can't read a line without giving it an offbeat inflection. Affleck is the opposite: His readings are four-corners square, no matter how desperately he tries to tweak them.
Playing a slick Chicago ad executive—a movie profession that rivals public relations for urban soullessness—Affleck leads a vapid, friendless life in an apartment that's just a bank of TV monitors away from Less Than Zero. Afraid of being left alone on the holidays, he cabs out to his childhood home in the suburbs and makes the current residents an offer: If they welcome him as part of the family and allow him to stay until Christmas Day, he'll issue them a check for $250,000. Not long after his new adoptive "parents" (James Gandolfini and Catherine O'Hara) ink the deal, Affleck's rigorously scripted idea of yuletide fun wears on their nerves and sends their already-fragile marriage to the brink. When their daughter (Christina Applegate) shows up, the charade starts to unravel, but she also sees the decency and heart behind some of Affleck's garish gestures.
The moral of Surviving Christmas is obvious: "Money can't buy happiness." And yet, as a matter of fact, it can. This family was in disarray before Affleck arrived, but once he opens his wallet, Gandolfini and O'Hara undergo a Grease-like youthful makeover that rejuvenates their marriage and unifies them against their invasive stranger. Without money, the story would end with Gandolfini hitting Affleck in the head with a shovel. With it, Affleck behaves like a man-child of Pee-wee Herman proportions and gets what he wants, though he doesn't seem to derive any more joy from his antics than his hosts do. Affleck's psychotic enthusiasm aside, no one seems to be having a good time, and the ill will becomes infectious.