Like being force-fed a candy cane

Movie critics are supposed to attend screenings as unprejudiced as judges trying a case, but I admit to having doubts about "Surviving Christmas" even before seeing it.

One, it stars Ben Affleck, and his track record hasn't exactly been stellar lately ("Gigli," "Jersey Girl," "Daredevil").

Two, director Mike Mitchell's big hit so far has been "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo," while screenwriters Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont helped pen such classics as "Josie and the Pussycats" and "The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas."

Three, and most important, it's a Christmas movie and it's being released a week before Halloween.

True, last year's big Christmas hit, "Elf," was released Nov. 7, a week after Halloween, but that's a huge two-week difference in terms of marketing. Christmas may have overrun and marginalized Thanksgiving, turning both November and December into the Christmas shopping season, but October's another beast altogether. October's for pagan holidays, and presumably for scary, pagan movies.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"Surviving Christmas," with Ben Affleck, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Christina Applegate. Directed by Mike Mitchell, from a screenplay by Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont, Jeffrey Ventimilia and Joshua Sternin. 99 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and a brief drug reference. Several theaters.

So was I pleasantly surprised? Will October become the new starting point for Christmas cheer? Not bloody likely.

"Surviving Christmas" has a few laugh-out-loud lines, and actors James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos") and Catherine O'Hara ("SCTV") provide deadpan humor, but the movie can't overcome Affleck. His character, Drew Latham, the slick president of a slick ad agency, is cartoonish and unsympathetic, and his acting is so off-key and over-the-top it's like he's doing a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

Worse — and ironic, given the Christmas theme — I didn't buy it.

I didn't buy that Latham's spoiled girlfriend, Missy (Jennifer Morrison), would leave him because he wants to take her to Fiji for Christmas. "How can you be serious about me when you're not serious about your family!" she complains.

I didn't buy that Latham — the Fiji lover — would suddenly be so desperate to spend the holidays with anyone, anywhere, but doesn't think to call Missy and apologize.

Then, when he returns to his childhood home to burn a list of childhood grievances on the snowy front sidewalk, I didn't buy that the house's new owner, Tom Valco (Gandolfini), would commit assault with a deadly shovel before questioning him.

This leads to the movie's main plot point: Latham paying the Valcos $250,000 to pretend to be his family for the holidays — which, OK, I'll buy. Why not? But make it work. The filmmakers don't. Latham walks around with a supercharged grin, demanding a big Christmas tree, tobogganing and holiday cheer. He seems fairly insane. What happened to the Fiji guy who wanted to ignore Christmas?

When the pretty, middle-class daughter shows up (Christina Applegate), I groaned inwardly, because I — we — all — knew where this was going. It's like sledding down a steep hill and seeing the unavoidable tree. You just brace your body and get ready for pain.

"Surviving Christmas" wants to be a black comedy but injects cloying sweetness at predictable moments. When we find out the truth about Latham's childhood, it just raises more questions. If that's the case then how could they afford the house? And why did he return to it? And why didn't he tell Missy all this in the first place?

There's a lot to not buy in "Surviving Christmas." I recommend not buying.

Erik Lundegaard: