Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Rainier Wolfcastle is being interviewed by Kent Brockman about his latest film, in which he plays a father who visits his son at college and is horrified to learn he’s a nerd. When Brockman says, “I’m laughing already,” Wolfcastle says stoically, “It’s not a comedy.” In a better world, Jingle All the Way would also not be a comedy. As I watched it, I imagined the possibilities of this story—a lone man trying to get a Christmas toy for his beloved son—retold through the prism of star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s usual ultraviolent, hard-R theatrics. By this point in his career, Schwarzenegger had become the cuddliest pituitary case on the planet, eschewing direct-to-video obscurity by playing up his popularity with children and making light Ivan Reitman comedies full of adorable moppets and pregnant men. Even his most famous villain became a good guy and child protector in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
The fact that Jingle All the Way plays like a live-action cartoon aimed at children should have surprised nobody upon its release in 1996. However, it’s a film of such crass cynicism, I wish it had gone to even darker extremes with its ideas, some of which are actually pretty interesting.
The film stars Schwarzenegger as Howard Langston, a workaholic who tries to make up for years of neglect by buying his son, Jamie (Jake Lloyd), a Turbo Man action figure. On Christmas Eve Day. Naturally, all the stores are sold out, which leads Howard to pathetic extremes. He gets involved in an enormous brawl over a lottery drawing for the town’s last shipment of Turbo Man figures. A suspicious mall Santa (James Belushi) takes Howard to a secret sweatshop run by all the mall Santas in the Twin Cities, where they sell him a Mexican knockoff Turbo Man for $300. This sequence leads to one of the film’s strangest moments, in which Howard delivers merciless beatings to the Santas with a novelty-sized candy cane.
Howard reluctantly teams up with single-dad Myron Larabee (Sinbad), an unstable postman willing to sell out Howard at every turn to get a Turbo Man for his own child. Their rivalry/friendship occupies most of the film’s runtime, as they commiserate before racing to the next possible Turbo Man destination. This eventually builds to such insanity as Howard fighting with a vicious reindeer (no, really) and inadvertently setting fire to smarmy neighbor Ted’s (Phil Hartman, not surprisingly the film’s lone bright spot) house trying to steal the Turbo Man under his tree. Ted’s busy trying to put the moves on Liz (Rita Wilson), Howard’s perturbed wife.
Finally, Howard stumbles into the staging area of the city’s Christmas parade, where he’s mistaken for a fill-in Turbo Man. They slap the costume (which, for cartoon-logic reasons, includes fully functional weaponry and a jet pack) on him, stick a Turbo Man action figure in his hands, and shove him out onto the float. Meanwhile, Myron dresses up like Turbo Man’s villain, Dementor, and attempts to steal the Turbo Man action figure. When Howard gives it to Jamie (who, again for cartoon-logic reasons, doesn’t recognize the only musclebound Austrian in Minnesota as his own father—if he were Swedish, I might have bought that), Myron chases Jamie through the rooftops of Minneapolis, nearly killing a small child in pursuit of a Christmas gift.
This is the sort of cynical world in which Jingle All the Way takes place, and hopefully you have a sense of why I wish it had gone darker and more extreme with the material. Inspired by the Cabbage Patch Kid frenzy of the ’80s, the film predated the Tickle-Me Elmo fad by a few months—the perfect time to make an actual statement about the absurd consumer patterns and lemming mentality in this country. Instead, the film tries to work as a sunny cartoon, the sort of film where a bomb explodes and the next shot shows the man holding the bomb, face blackened with soot, hair tousled, eyes wide with confusion and dismay. The cartoonish tone does nothing to dull the film’s cynicism, which gives the whole film a strangely passive-aggressive feel. Clearly, the filmmakers see the inherent insanity in holiday shopping, lending the film an undercurrent of anger and disapproval, but they don’t have the guts to make a statement about it. It’s a film that’s mad as hell but will still take it until such time as it’s willing to discuss the possibility of not taking it anymore.
Maybe it works as a colorful cartoon for kids. I have a dim recollection of kids liking the film a great deal when it came out. I have to assume the film’s blackened edges have something to do with it trying to appeal to adults, but it falls flat. Unlike something like Home Alone (directed by Chris Columbus, whose company produced this film), Jingle All the Way has no humanity for adults to sink their teeth into. Daffy Duck has more relatable human traits than Howard Langston, and that’s a problem the film never attempts to overcome.