In this highly formulaic star vehicle, the season’s first Christmas movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger gets to fly like Peter Pan, act like Superman — and fulfill the kind of fantasy many kids imagine for their fathers. Based on an idea similar to the premise of “Home Alone,” though not nearly as accomplished or entertaining, and produced by that film’s director, Chris Columbus, this family comedy-adventure is decidedly not a vintage Schwarzenegger kidpic on the order of “Kindergarten Cop.” Fox should expect solid, if not boffo, box office, with stronger results in foreign and ancillary markets.
Laying the same guilt on parents for neglecting their children as did “Home Alone,” “Jingle All the Way” reverses the l990 blockbuster’s p.o.v. Instead of focusing on the children, scripter Randy Kornfield’s slight tale centers on the desperate efforts of a workaholic father to get his son his desired Christmas gift. End result is an erratic comedy that will frustrate children, the film’s main target audience, because the kid doesn’t get as much screen time as Dad.
Schwarzenegger plays Howard Langston, a high-powered businessman who, despite good intentions, always seems to miss important family events, such as the karate awards ceremonies of his son, Jamie (Jake Lloyd, currently on view in “Unhook the Stars”). Howard loves his devoted wife, Liz (Rita Wilson), and their son, but he’s never around.
As the movie begins, Liz reminds Howard about Jake’s wish to get the action toy Turbo Man for Christmas. Howard becomes hysterical with panic — it’s Christmas Eve and Turbo Man is not only the season’s hottest gift, but it’s been sold out since Thanksgiving.
In the manner of “Father Knows Best,” if not “Life With Father,” Howard begins a frantic down-to-the-wire trek to find Turbo Man, which turns out to be a much bigger challenge — and nightmare — than he anticipated. On his wild odyssey, he encounters a crazed postman, Myron Larabee (Sinbad), who’s equally desperate to claim a Turbo Man for his boy. On and off, the two rivaling dads meet, argue, compete, fight — and repeatedly lose the one toy around.
Attempting to flesh out the extremely slender material, filmmakers have arranged for Howard to fight a corrupt operation, headed by a shady Santa Claus (James Belushi) who dupes Howard into buying a headless, Korean-speaking Turbo Man. And for comic relief, there are periodic encounters with a “tough” cop, Officer Hummell (Robert Conrad), who seems to be around only when least needed, as when Howard is speeding home or rushing to yet another location in search of the coveted present.
To elevate his stature, Schwarzenegger has always shrewdly surrounded himself with second bananas. This movie takes that pattern to the extreme, with all the supporting figures functioning as second bananas — as both characters and actors. Howard is schematically contrasted with his “touchy-feely” neighbor Ted (Phil Hartman), the “perfect” single father who bought his son Turbo Man months before the holiday. Only a notch above a stereotypical representation of a gay man, Ted wears an apron, bakes cookies and courts Liz — to Howard’s furious amazement.
Though Brian Levant has directed a number of commercial features (“Beethoven,” “The Flintstones”), his TV background as writer-producer of “Happy Days” and other popular series remains very much in evidence. Excepting its frenzied pacing, “Jingle All the Way” is as broadly staged as a sitcom, with scenes that have momentum for six or seven minutes at a time (waiting, as it were, for commercial interruption), lacking the necessary energy or continuity to sustain a feature-length movie.
Though the movie is one of the shortest in the Schwarzenegger canon, after the first reel, the yarn runs out of ideas. What ensues are variations on the same theme, which — despite the madcap race — progressively get tedious. It’s almost possible to predict the point at which kids in the audience will start running up and down the aisle — and set parents looking at their watches.
Still, with two decades of screen acting to his credit, Schwarzenegger has developed a light comic delivery, punctuated occasionally by an ironic one-liner. Here, his deadpan expression and thick-accented phrasing of American slang provide his straight, yuppie character with a most welcome humorous touch.
As Howard’s fearsome foe, Sinbad has good moments, though his big monologue is overly long and irritating. Rest of the cast, including Wilson as the dutiful wife, Conrad as a comic-strip cop and Hartman as the obnoxious neighbor, is pale, which is probably more a result of the writing than their acting skills.
Every Schwarzenegger picture benefits from a large troupe of stuntmen, but this one bears the distinction of crediting the efforts of no fewer than 60 stunt people, used in colorful and busy set pieces such as Minneapolis’ Mall of America, reportedly the country’s biggest.