The title "Surviving Christmas" doesn't exactly scream holiday cheer, does it?
Instead, it probably conjures up images of eye-rolls and slamming bedroom doors to scream into pillows at best and lifting a knife from carving a turkey to threaten someone across the table at worst. But that is exactly the point. Because for many people, the holiday season isn't completely joyous, filled with love, laughter, and matching sweaters or pajama sets.
For Drew Latham (Ben Affleck), it used to mean sitting alone at home while his mother worked, but his mother died when he was in college, and his Christmases were all downhill from there. This time, his plan is to take his girlfriend (played by Jennifer Morrison) to Fiji (first class!), but she is turned off by how he doesn't want to spend a family holiday with his (or her) family. So, on advice from her therapist (no that's not a typo; he tracks down her therapist at the airport and receives a very off the cuff idea), he travels out to his childhood home for a little experience in letting go. Only, the patriarch of the family that lives there now doesn't take so kindly to a strange man in his yard.
Once they talk, though, Drew decides what he needs is to spend the holidays with this family, so that he can experience a traditional Christmas with tree-trimming and big family meals. That patriarch, Tom (James Gandolfini), agrees because Drew promises to pay him a quarter of a million dollars. Only, once Drew is enmeshed with the Valcos (also including matriarch Christine, played by Catherine O'Hara; teenage Brian, played by Josh Zuckerman; and Alicia, played by Christina Applegate), he realizes things aren't as cheerful as he hoped.
For one thing, Tom and Christine are on the verge of divorce, and for another Drew can't seem to win Alicia over with his usual flashy antics. But it is still a holiday movie, so even if they struggle, they will learn to be better because of and with each other in the end.
The 2004 holiday rom-com wasn't a box office smash, but it has offbeat humor and an all-star cast, so if you're looking for more of that, here, Metacritic highlights 10 similar movies in story or tone, but all of which are much more highly rated, according to their Metascore.
Best for: Fans of advantageous criminals who get a taste of redemption
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This is another "adults only" Christmas movie but it goes even harder into dark themes than Surviving Christmas. Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is not your average mall Santa in this 2003 feature: He is secretly a criminal who plans a big store robbery every holiday season, and he uses the seasonal gig to gain access. But when he meets Thurman (Brett Kelly), a bullied boy who really believes he is Santa, and Sue (Lauren Graham), a woman with a Santa fetish, his life begins to change. Sure, he uses them both at first: finding a way to stay at Thurman's house and, of course, having sex with Sue. But over time, he begins to use his disposition for violence to better others' lives, such as attacking Thurman's bullies and ultimately teaching Thurman how to stand up for himself. The film also deals in themes of gun violence, suicide, and alcoholism. While Willie and Drew are miles apart in actions, it is easy to see how Drew could have become Willie under different circumstances, and with a slightly different disposition.
"Without question, not for the children. It is, however, just the cup of rancid black-comedy eggnog for anyone fed up with holiday cheer in all its manifestations." — Ty Burr, The Boston Globe
Best for: Fans of LGBTQIA+ relationships
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This is another holiday comedy that sees someone coming spending the season with a complicated family — only this time, it is her family and she's bringing a girlfriend she's eager to just let everyone think is a roommate because she is not out to them yet. Mackenzie Davis plays Harper, the woman who is not yet out to her family but still is the one to suggest to her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) that she spend the holidays with them in this 2020 film. Naturally, tension ensues because of the secret, which (spoiler alert) gets outed anyway), and relationships are put to the test. But it turns out Harper isn't the only one in her family keeping the truth of her romance from the others.
"Great rom-coms can circumvent flaws if they deliver on the joy, the cosiness, and the chemistry, and DuVall's film offers a generous helping of all three." — Orla Smith, The Film Stage
Metascore: 63 for the original, 46 for the sequel
Best for: Fans of O'Hara, kid-centric comedies, and homemade booby traps
Where to watch Home Alone:
O'Hara once again plays a family matriarch in this 1990s double feature, and although she gets less screen time in these two films because they are really focused on the son (Kevin, played by Macaulay Culkin) who gets left on his own for the holidays, her turn in them is still extremely memorable. In the first film, the McCallister family is heading to Paris (yes, the one in Texas) for Christmas, only a winter storm knocks out their power and makes them oversleep and almost miss their flight. As they are rushing around the house, they don't realize Kevin is still asleep, and because Kevin had wished for his family to disappear just the night before after getting into a fight with his mom, he thinks he's about to have the best Christmas ever. But it turns into a holiday war when two thieves (played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) set their sights on his street, and he takes it upon himself to defend his house from burglary. The humor in just how violent his boobytraps are is twisted, and it only antes up in the sequel when he (once again) finds himself separated from his family for the holidays, only this time he's got to use the street of New York City to foil the same thieves from robbing a toy store.
"[Home Alone] has a big payoff; it's the setup that's the drag. But Kevin's antics will touch the budding subversive in every kid." — Hal Hinson, The Washington Post
Best for: Fans of multiple generations of family members and their individual romantic relationships
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At one point in Surviving Christmas, Drew's girlfriend does make a surprise pop in (along with her parents) to the Valcos, who he is pretending is his actual family. In some ways, the chaos that ensues, though much more over-the-top, is similar to the experience Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) has when he brings his girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home for the holidays in this 2005 film. His family doesn't respond well to her at first, which causes her to bring her sister Julie (Claire Danes) to stay with her for support, too. The added new dynamic only causes more complications, including confusing romantic feelings for Everett and Julie, and Meredith and Everett's brother Ben (Luke Wilson). There's no talk of divorce in this one, but there is another big "d" looming: potential death, as matriarch Sybil (Diane Keaton) reveals a recurrence of cancer. It's a much more dramatic tale at times, but there are ample awkward moments to provide humor, too.
"Throughout the uneven film and its mixed bag of performances, the compelling point of focus is Diane Keaton's smart, funny, spot-on natural portrait of the formidable Stone matriarch." — Sheri Linden, The Hollywood Reporter
Best for: Fans of good ol' fashioned family drama
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The Valcos are keeping secrets from each other in Surviving Christmas and so, too, are the Rodriguezes in this 2008 feature. Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) is nursing a war injury but hiding some more complicated emotional feelings about surviving and coming back to take over the family business; Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) is struggling with knowing the man who killed his brother is now out of prison), and Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) isn't as successful in her career and life in Los Angeles as everyone thinks she is. Throw in some still-harbored romantic feelings for characters who are with new people and the announcement that the heads of the family (played by Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Peña) are splitting up, and now it's a dysfunctional family Christmas!
"The ensemble cast boasts some of the finest actors in the business. They do their best to breathe life into the stereotypes, but they simply don't have enough to work with." — Mike Mayo, The Washington Post
Best for: Fans of Chevy Chase and those who enjoy watching horrible fictional family members descend on relatives
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A promise (and a down payment) to put in a family pool before the holiday bonus check actually arrived, a visit from relatives who empty their trailer's commode on your street, a senile grandmother who wrapped up her cat as a present, an incident of road rage on a jaunt to cut down the family Christmas tree, and a kidnapping plot to teach the corporate boss a lesson about withholding those bonus checks. This 1989 National Lampoon franchise holiday movie has it all, and all of it amounts to over-the-top high jinks you would never experience in real life but might enjoy watching from the safety and comfort of your own couch. Because as much as Clark Griswold (Chase) and his family go through, they are surrounded by love and warmth, and they still have it better than many people. And at the end of the day (film), remembering that and giving what they can to those around them is all that matters.
"It's about what you'd expect — a collection of gags, some good, some bad, with the bare suggestion of a story to hang it all on." — Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chroncile
Best for: Fans of fake relationships that turn into real ones
Where to watch: Netflix
Runtime: 99 minutes
Whereas Drew pretended to have a family for Christmas in Surviving Christmas, Peter (Michael Urie) pretends to have a boyfriend (Nick, played by Philemon Chambers) so his family will stop asking him about his love life. It's a tale as old as this genre, but what makes this 2021 movie stand out as one to watch if you like Surviving Christmas among so many others is, in great part, supporting performer Jennifer Coolidge, whose comedic energy is similar to O'Hara's (they both appeared in Christopher Guest films, for example). She plays Aunt Sandy, who is in charge of the Christmas pageant. Before Peter's mother (played by Kathy Najimy) can learn about his fake relationship, she sets her son up with someone else, so like Drew and Alicia, there is a lot of dancing around each other between Peter and Nick.
"Though the title may be the cleverest thing about this cookie cutter affair, it's refreshing to see a gay family film that doesn't use its characters' sexuality for dramatic conflict." — Jude Dry, IndieWire
Best for: Fans of mother-daughter drama
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The sequel to 2016's Bad Moms expands the universe by introducing Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell), and Carla's (Kathryn Hahn's mothers, who all serve to explain why their daughters are the way they are and put their parenting into even more perspective. Christine Baranski plays Ruth, Amy's uber-critical mother; Cheryl Hines is Sandy, Kiki's clingy mother, and Susan Sarandon portrays Isis, Carla's opportunistic mom. The original trio vow to "take Christmas back" and still have their fun, but their moms unexpectedly team up for the same. Applegate played an antagonist of the trio in the first film and reprises her role in a cameo in this 2017 followup.
"It's by no means good, but there are moments of effective emotion and comedy that make up for some of the dumber jokes, and sheer charisma largely carries it along." — Helen O'Hara, Empire
Best for: Fans of bad behavior in a workplace environment
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With one last attempt to keep a company afloat, you throw a holiday party, right? Well, you do if you need to show a potential new client a good time and make him feel like the company is stable and full of employees with good morale. But of course that's not really the case, and complicating matters further is that the interim CEO (played by Jennifer Aniston) is the sister of the manager (played by T.J. Miller) whose branch she is threatening to close. Being that this is a 2016 comedy film, the debauchery the employees get up to at the party and exaggerated, including sex, drugs, damage to company property, and an injury to the man they're trying to impress. And that's even before they hear the fate of the branch.
"Yes, there are laughs to be had, but not the off-the-charts merriment promised by the title and the film's expert cast of comic actors." — Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle
Best for: Those who want to see relationships tested and secrets revealed in a holiday setting
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Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon star in this 2008 holiday film as a couple who has eschewed traditional family holidays for years and gotten away with it because they've claimed to be volunteering overseas every time. But this time, they get caught on a news camera at the airport when they learn they won't be able to fly out after all, which leads to calls from their families and forced attendance at four separate events (because their parents are divorced). With each new event, their relationship is tested farther, as things they had yet to confide in each other about are shared by other family members and they begin to wonder if they really do want the same things.
"It's well acted and it's entertaining — and who can resist a movie where Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau are brothers, and Robert Duvall is their dad?" — Cammila Albertson, TV Guide Magazine