Ben Affleck And Christmas Sure As Hell Don’t Mix

There’s a reason why ‘Reindeer Games’ isn’t an annual tradition
Ben Affleck And Christmas Sure As Hell Don’t Mix

Tinsel, eggnog, drunken relatives and… Ben Affleck? Yeah, the star of this year’s least-erotic erotic thriller isn’t someone that we typically associate with Christmas, but this wasn’t due to a lack of trying. Back in the early 2000s, Affleck made not one but two holiday flicks within a four-year period. Unfortunately, they went over about as well as a Dunkin’ Donuts iced latte-shaped lead balloon.

First, there was Reindeer Games, the mostly-forgotten 2000 action-thriller starring Affleck as an ex-con who hooks up with his dead cellmate's sexy pen pal (played by Charlize Theron). Then he gets dragged into participating in a casino heist orchestrated by her brother, a gang leader played by Gary Sinise, which turns out to be a lot less fun than just hanging out with Charlize Theron for an hour and 44 minutes.

What does any of this have to do with Christmas? Well, the movie is set during the holiday, ends with a festive dinner and Affleck and his criminal buddies dress up like Santa Clauses for the big heist. Plus, his character is named “Rudy” — as in Rudolph. So presumably, the whole movie is an elaborate allegory for the horribly toxic North Pole culture first exposed by Rankin Bass back in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, the movie tanked at the box office and was savagely torn apart by critics as if it were a common giant back tattoo. Theron later referred to Reindeer Games as one of the few films of hers she actively hates, calling it “a bad, bad, bad movie.” Theron also admitted that she only took the gig because she wanted to work with John Frankenheimer, the legendary director who made classics like The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds — but also not-so-classics like the 1996 Island of Dr. Moreau starring Val Kilmer, Marlon Brando and a bunch of stand-ins who were definitely not Marlon Brando.

It was Frankenheimer’s cinematic pedigree that some argued actually got in the way of what should have been a B-grade action schlockfest; as Entertainment Weekly noted at the time: “Frankenheimer is a craftsman trying to do a hack’s job,” questioning, “Where’s Simon West or Michael Bay when you need them?” 

Frankenheimer, on the other hand, blamed the film flat-lining on the studio’s post-production demands, which included making significant cuts and adding in re-shoots based on feedback from audience test screenings, which meant delaying the release date. This is why a Christmas-set movie about a dude who shares his name with Santa’s most famous mutant reindeer bizarrely came out at the end of February. In his review, Roger Ebert speculated: “Perhaps the movie was originally intended to open at Christmas,” brutally adding that “the moment to improve Reindeer Games was at the screenplay stage, by choosing another one.”

Undeterred by this seasonal catastrophe, just a few years later, Affleck signed up for another yuletide film: Surviving Christmas. This time the project was a broad comedy about a rich yuppie who visits his childhood home over Christmas. He then uses his wealth to bribe the couple living there to pretend to be his family — kind of like a more festive Synecdoche, New York. In addition to the intriguing premise, the supporting cast included James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Christina Applegate. On paper, this probably seemed like a slam dunk. It was not.

There were major problems behind the scenes, including constant rewrites; one day, Gandolfini reportedly “refused to leave his trailer for an entire day unless the script was reworked.” Then Gigli happened. 

Surviving Christmas was originally supposed to hit theaters in December 2003, but after Gigli notoriously bombed that summer, Surviving Christmas was delayed for a whole year. Unfortunately, there was another similarly titled holiday movie scheduled for Christmas 2004, Skipping Christmas, which was eventually renamed Christmas with the Kranks. You know, the one where Tim Allen manages to celebrate the birth of Jesus without bumping off Santa Claus. 

After various “legal threats,” Surviving Christmas was shuffled to the decidedly un-Christmasy release date of October 22nd, just in time for… Halloween, while being advertised with a teaser poster that conspicuously obfuscated Affleck’s involvement. Once it came out, critics treated it with all the warmth of a Frosty the Snowman fart. CNN flat-out said it was “hard to endure, while the Boston Globe published a review stating that Surviving Christmas was “exactly what's wrong with Hollywood” and also that “calling it a movie would be like categorizing Spam as meat.”

In retrospect, it’s hard to see a lot of this as Affleck’s fault. He’s not particularly good in either movie, but Santa clearly gifted him with a stocking of subpar material to work with. If Affleck ever dares to tempt fate by making another Christmas movie (possibly starring him and Matt Damon as Christmas elves with inexplicably thick Boston accents), hopefully, it will be one that actually gets released in the month of December. 

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