Ben Affleck: Grayson Alexander/Retna
Gary Susman
October 27, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Dear Ben Affleck: How to save your career…

Can Ben Affleck survive Surviving Christmas? The holiday comedy opened this weekend to scathing reviews and meager box office ($4.5 million, behind The Grudge and five movies that had already been playing awhile). That makes four flops in a row for the onetime golden boy, after Jersey Girl, Paycheck, and Gigli. And offscreen, he hasn’t done himself any favors with his tabloid-friendly personal life.

Here’s what we’d advise Affleck to do if he wants to avoid becoming Brian Dunkleman’s roommate on an upcoming season of The Surreal Life. (If you’re reading this, Ben… call us!)

Find the write stuff. It all starts with the screenplay; a bad one will doom your project before a frame of film is shot. Judging by your last few movies, however, you seem to be unaware of some basic rules of how to choose a good one. Try to pick ones that haven’t been written by committee (like Surviving Christmas, which credits four scribes). Don’t pick a script by a writer (like Gigli‘s Martin Brest) whose last produced screenplay, 24 years ago, was about geriatric bank robbers. Don’t do a sci-fi epic written by anyone who had a hand in a Lara Croft movie (like Paycheck screenwriter Dean Georgaris). Anyone who wrote a movie where Michael Keaton comes back to life as a snowman (like Daredevil‘s Mark Steven Johnson) probably shouldn’t be trusted with a beloved comic-book superhero. But even filmmakers with good track records can get in a rut. So…

Avoid your enablers. Yes, Kevin Smith helped launch your career with Mallrats and Chasing Amy, but you guys don’t exactly have a Scorsese-De Niro kind of collaboration going. He certainly didn’t do you any favors with Jersey Girl. Smith is just one of many contributing to your tendency to pick disastrous projects. Even though some of these people are your friends, you should stay away from Smith, Harvey Weisntein, Jerry Bruckheimer, and anyone named Jennifer.

Keep a low profile. How can we miss you if you won’t go away? Lay low for a while. Don’t do anything that’ll get your picture in the tabloids. Stay away from the poker tables in Vegas. Stop popping up at Fenway Park (smart money says you have a state-of-the-art home theater for watching those Red Sox games). And don’t date anyone you’ve worked with or who may want to cast you in her music video.

Remember Matt? You should. You guys wrote an Oscar-winning script together once. It’s time to write another. Even if it’s for a project you don’t act in, it’ll play like a serious, mature move. (Of course, people do like to see you two together on screen, whether in dramatic films, like Good Will Hunting, or in black-comic ones, like Dogma.) And even though you recently told USA Today you ”don’t want to hold a gun in a movie or blow anything up ever again,” you should check out your pal Damon’s Jason Bourne movies, which demonstrate that action movies don’t have to be like Paycheck — they can be big hits without insulting the audience’s intelligence. You got it right with The Sum of All Fears… Can you get Tom Clancy to write you another one of those?

Think small. After Christmas, you may be out of the running for leading-man roles in big-budget movies, but Hollywood’s loss can be Sundance’s gain. Go back to your indie roots and make movies that cost less than your losses on poker night. The filmmakers will be grateful, and critics respectful. If you’re going to do bigger movies, take a supporting role, or even a cameo, so that you’ll get credit if the result is good but no blame if the movie fails. Your quick but vivid turns in Shakespeare in Love, 200 Cigarettes, and Boiler Room show you already know how to do this.

Make us laugh. Your current release notwithstanding, your instinct to want to do fewer action movies and more comedies is a good one. You’re funny and self-deprecating in interviews, and you’ve made us laugh on screen, going all the way back to your big-screen break as the bullying O’Bannion in 1993’s Dazed and Confused. We’ve also enjoyed your visits to Saturday Night Live, so keep popping up there, and soon you’ll be as reliable a comic guest player as Alec Baldwin, John Goodman, or Christopher Walken.

Steer clear of Yuletide films. Surviving Christmas, Reindeer Games — see a pattern here?

What advice would you give Ben Affleck?

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