Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 22, 2004)
In 1996’s Jingle All the Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted to make himself lovable. He’d taken steps in that direction with prior comedies like Twins and Kindergarten Cop, but Jingle actually tried to cast the Austrian beefcake as an ordinary dad.
Did it work? Yes and no. The movie took in $60 million, a figure that kept it from “flop” territory. However, that total seemed pretty mediocre for a big-budget holiday release from a major star, so Jingle fell in that nebulous territory between hit and bomb.
Which is probably where it belonged. Jingle could have been worse, but it also could have been a much more clever and insightful examination of the panic that accompanies the holidays.
Workaholic Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) never seems to have enough time for his young son Jamie (Jake Lloyd) despite pleas from wife Liz (Rita Wilson). When Howard misses a ceremony at which Jamie gets his purple belt in karate, he promises the boy he’ll do anything to make it up to him. Jamie pleas for a TurboMan action figure as a Christmas present, and Howard swears he’ll deliver the goods.
This shouldn’t be a problem since Liz told him to pick up one weeks earlier. Predictably, however, Howard forgot to do so, which leaves him without the toy on the day before Christmas. Howard figures it’ll be no problem to grab one, but TurboMan is the hottest toy of the year, which makes it virtually impossible for him to find.
During his hunt, Howard meets disgruntled postal employee Myron Larabee (Sinbad), another busy dad who didn’t get his shopping done earlier. Myron needs a TurboMan for his own son, which sets up the pair as rivals. Eventually Myron offers a truce to make the pair partners, but Howard prefers to go it alone. This bothers Myron and makes sure they’ll go against each other the rest of the movie, though the focus consistently remains on Howard’s travails.
I can still remember the near-riots that accompanied parental searches for Cabbage Patch Kids back in the early Eighties, and other toys have inspired similar frenzies. This took Jingle into territory ripe for comedy, but the film largely fails to fulfill its potential.
That’s partly because it can’t quite decide its focus. On one hand, Jingle engages in a lot of broad slapstick connected to holiday themes. We see many battles among shoppers over the action figure, and we even get a massive battle that takes place in a warehouse filled with faux Santas. Half the movie acts like a huge cartoon.
On the other hand, Jingle also wants to connect with the usual holiday sentiment. It’s rare to find a Christmas movie without various attempts at touching, emotional elements, and Howard’s strained relationship with young Jamie causes those. It’s all totally obvious where this will go, as everyone should expect a sappy conclusion that makes everything happy and joyful among the family.
At its heart, Jingle presents a rather cynical view of parental responsibilities. Clearly Howard’s neglected his family for quite some time, but we’re meant to believe that if he just tosses a toy his boy’s way, he’ll prove himself as a caring father. Granted, I see that the toy acts as a symbol; it’s Howard’s last chance to prove that he can follow through on his promises. But still, it seems cheap that all his transgressions will become forgiven just because he delivers a crummy action figure.
Maybe it’s too much to expect that a light holiday comedy will engage in greater depth than that, though the classic A Christmas Story manages to do so. The relationship between that flick’s Ralphie and his Old Man seems vastly more realistic than the interactions between Howard and Jamie. That’s partially because the BB gun for which Ralphie lusts isn’t the whole point of the flick; despite the Old Man’s crustiness, we know he cares for his kids with or without a present. Howard doesn’t enjoy such a benefit of the doubt, which makes his necessary gift a tacky gesture.
This makes Jingle mostly an exploration of the inevitable with a very predictable storyline. It goes out of its way to put Howard in many wacky circumstances, all so he can eventually redeem himself as a good dad. Most of this exists as little more that an excuse for plenty of wild shenanigans, and the film awkwardly blends broad comedy and mushy sentiment.
I’m also not sure who thought it’d be a good idea to cast Schwarzenegger as an average suburban father. On what planet does he make sense in this role? At least the presence of Sinbad ensures that he’s not the worst actor in the cast. The has-been comedian delivers such an over-the-top performance that he makes Schwarzenegger look like a study in realism. Neither shows much of a comedic connection, though they don’t get much of a chance to do so; the film only sporadically uses Myron as a comedic foil, so he doesn’t pop up very frequently.
Occasionally, Jingle All the Way manages some minor humor, such as the scene with the seedy Santas. It also enjoys a pretty good supporting cast with talents like Phil Hartman and Rita Wilson in tow. Nonetheless, it focuses its energy on cheap humor and easy sentiment, which makes it both sappy and unfunny much of the time. Add to that an idiotic and unrealistic ending and Jingle doesn’t offer much entertainment.
End credits alert: stick it out through the final title crawl for a cute concluding sequence.