In the golden age of Hollywood, no less than the likes of Frank Capra owned Christmas on the big screen. But if you want Proof No. 496 of how far things have fallen, consider that in the Nineties holiday cinema is a wholly owned subsidiary of Chris Columbus -- hired gun of John Hughes, protege of Spielberg, spawn of Satan -- who directed the season's biggest hits for three out of four consecutive years. (Home Alone in 1990, its sequel in 1992, Mrs. Doubtfire in 1993, and then -- thank heavens -- he rested.)
He's back this year, as producer only, with Jingle All the Way, directed by Brian Levant from Randy Kornfield's screenplay. I'd say that Columbus's fingerprints are all over the final product, but since Levant has already proved himself such a kindred spirit, credit -- or debit -- for the result is hard to assign. Levant's previous films (most notably 1994's The Flintstones and 1992's Beethoven) have been, at heart, live-action cartoons. Both of those were reasonably amusing piffle, though there's another film on his resume about which Levant (wisely) seems ashamed. In the press notes for Jingle All the Way, Beethoven is listed as his directorial debut -- an attempt to cloud recollections of his actual debut, the entirely loathsome Problem Child 2 (1991).
Well, as both Alexander Pope and li'l Bonaparte said, "To err is human; to forgive, divine." If a director goes astray on his way toward truly superior work, why begrudge him his early follies? On the other hand, Jingle All the Way isn't truly superior, and divinity isn't my strong suit -- which is why I've gone on so long about both Columbus's limitations and Levant's early excrescence.
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Howard Langston -- Arnold has reached the point where there's not even an attempt to explain his accent -- a harried businessman who's always breaking promises to his eight-year-old son Jamie (Jake Lloyd). As Christmas approaches, Howard (of course) forgets to buy Jamie the Turbo Man action figure he's been pleading for; apparently out of touch with the increasing frenzy of Christmas shopping, Howard actually imagines he'll be able to saunter out on December 24 and find Turbo Man in any toy store.
As any parent or child already knows, it is to laugh.
Turbo Man has been sold out for days, and Howard is one of the hundreds of equally desperate, equally irresponsible parents who are now willing to beg, borrow, steal, and possibly commit homicidal acts in order to make that last-minute purchase.
The film is structured as an ironically trivialized quest myth, with Howard plowing through crowds of competitors to find the Turbo grail. Chief among his foes is another ruthless dad, Myron the postman (Sinbad), whose determination is even more deranged than Howard's.
Woven throughout the movie's brief 88 minutes is a thread of satire that occasionally threatens to explode with genuine wit. Hysterical consumerism may be an easy and overdone target, but it's certainly a valid one. Still, the shots here are mostly pretty cheap: Jim Belushi shows up as a department store Santa who is actually part of a ring of black marketers; Martin Mull is a DJ who deliberately misleads his audience during a prize giveaway. Most of these barbs are one-note variations on a single theme -- the commercialization of Christmas. (If you want a sharper take on that, dig up Stan Freberg's classic Fifties record Green Christmas.)
But even such a broad comedy needs understandable characters and a consistent level of reality -- neither of which is in evidence. A major subplot, featuring Phil Hartman as an unctuous neighbor with designs on Howard's wife (Rita Wilson), has virtually no thematic or story connection to Howard's quest; it's merely a diversion to cut away to whenever the main thread becomes too frenetic.
Worse yet, Hartman's slimy Ted may be conniving, but he's no worse than Howard. Howard doesn't deserve to find Turbo Man; we are expected to root for him simply because he's Arnold. When he finally squares off against Myron, the script has Myron briefly turn from eccentric to psychotically evil. Two minutes after he's vanquished, he abruptly becomes sane again, lamely apologizing for nearly killing Jamie for a piece of plastic.
Arnold leans heavily on his repertoire of exasperated expressions, but he still seems out of place as an average suburban dad. (The central joke of True Lies, for all its flaws, was built on his obvious incongruity in such a setting.) Howard's heroic triumph at the climax would have been funnier with a less heroic-looking actor in the part.
The ultimate irony, of course, is that Jingle All the Way is itself a sales promotion -- a package clearly designed to create Turbo Man merchandising opportunities. For all its digs at consumer mania, nothing would please its makers more than life imitating art.