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‘Surviving Christmas’ feels manufactured

Ben Affleck hires a family to pretend they're his for the holidays. By John Hartl

Poor Ben Affleck. He’s muddled his way through “Gigli,” “Paycheck” and “Jersey Girl,” and now he’s become the object of derision in a merciless production number featured in “Team America: World Police.”

His latest movie, a thoroughly contrived hunk of holiday fluff called “Surviving Christmas,” is getting an early release; indeed, it’s the only Christmas movie this year to open before Halloween. It was originally scheduled to open in November, around the same time as “Christmas With the Kranks,” which stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Tim Allen and is apparently regarded as the bigger draw.

More than most holiday movies, “Surviving Christmas” feels as if it came off an assembly line. The soundtrack’s reliance on Christmas carols and standards is pretty shameless (especially the heart-tugging use of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), and so are the visuals: ice skaters, chestnuts roasting, well-spiked egg nog, snowball fights, a video fireplace, colored lights and overbearing lit-up trees.

In part, this dependence on manufactured nostalgia reflects the desperation of the hero, Drew Latham (Affleck), an obnoxious businessman who has been dumped by his girlfriend (Jennifer Morrison), who decides to spend Christmas with her family. He dispenses with a small fortune while trying to recreate the holidays of his youth.

Visiting his childhood home, he decides to hire the family that’s currently living there — at a cost of $250,000 — to pretend to be his family and participate in the usual Christmas rituals. Of course, they’re dysfunctional: mom (Catherine O’Hara) and dad (James Gandolfini) are heading for a divorce, their son (Jake Zuckerman) is addicted to internet porn, and their daughter (Christina Applegate) spends little time with them.

Drew also hires a local actor (Bill Macy) to do a crotchety grandfather impersonation, and at one point Drew stages what looks like a pocket version of Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular (it lacks only the Rockettes). Drew is obsessed with creating a little holiday feeling, yet he says so little about his own family, and what they might be doing at year’s end, that it’s clear he’s hiding something.

The expected confession arrives in the last reel, but not before he’s made a slapstick mess of things, pratfalling his way through a tree-trimming and sharing a wild toboggan ride with Applegate. Affleck, who has rarely seemed so manic, tries too hard to make the physical comedy click. The supporting cast comes closer to the mark.

Gandolfini’s menacing slow burn is as effective here as it is on “The Sopranos.” O’Hara gets her share of laughs as a neglected mother who blossoms when Drew insists she dress up and go on a fashion shoot. Zuckerman and Macy also have their moments, though Morrison and Applegate can’t get past the arbitrary nature of the characters they’ve been assigned.

Whenever Affleck is forced to choose between them, the movie simply self-destructs. They don’t get much apparent help from the director, Mike Mitchell (“Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo”), or a script that’s officially credited to four screenwriters.