A neurotic builds a castle in the air. A psychotic lives in it. In Surviving Christmas, Ben Affleck’s character rents a family to furnish it.

How bad is this black comedy with Affleck as lonely marketing exec Drew Latham and James Gandolfini as Tom Valco, patriarch of the rental family?

So bad you’re nostalgic for Gigli.

So painful you need an epidural.

So mindless you’ll lose yours wondering, "What were they thinking?"

"Most Americans think Christmas is a time for the family and in order to endure it, they must be as drunk as possible," Drew says to a client, pitching him on the benefits of spiking his product, which is eggnog.

Surviving Christmas exploits this ambivalence about the holidays by being as cynical and as sentimental about them as humanly possible.

And in its attempts to appeal both to those who believe in the magic of Christmas rituals and also to those who think the season has been devalued into an occasion only for checkbook cheer, the film is schizophrenic. It doesn’t need an audience, it needs a prescription for Thorazine.

These days, Hollywood movies are like political candidacies, forked-tongue affairs advocating both sides of an issue to attract the most constituents.

Terminator 2 was a call to arms about the elimination of arms. Female-empowerment movies such as Charlie’s Angels resort to having said female fall on her face so she won’t be that threatening.

But while Surviving Christmas is not unprecedented in speaking out of both sides of its mouth, it is, from conception to execution, an unalloyed, unqualified, unmitigated disaster. It has two tones – shrill cynicism and grating sentimentality.

I don’t know whether the inconsistency of tone is the result of two pairs of screenwriters working at cross purposes or the product of a director who gave his actors too much improvisational latitude.

What I do know is that Affleck, who anchors this misbegotten affair, comes off much worse than Gandolfini or Catherine O’Hara (as Mrs. Valco) or Christina Applegate (the Valcos’ daughter).

Apart from Chasing Amy, I've never thought much of Affleck’s acting. But I wouldn’t wish his flailing, mugging performance here on my worst enemy. "I need you like Ben Affleck needs acting school" is a lyric to a song in Team America. What Affleck needs is to survive Surviving Christmas, because I don’t know if anyone in the audience can.

Grade: F

—Carrie Rickey

Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT)

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