In the wake of the gargantuanly successful Home Alone (1990) - which grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide on a $15 million budget - a spate of similar holiday-themed comedies followed mixing broad slapstick with syrupy sentiment. A few, like The Santa Clause (1994), were popular if less spectacularly so. Jingle All the Way (1996), on the other hand, was along with the Christmas chestnuts roasted on an open fire. Star Arnold Schwarzenegger's days as a box office juggernaut were ebbing and, perhaps aware that his career was at a turning point, moved toward projects that spoofed or otherwise referenced his own screen persona (in The Last Action Hero, True Lies, etc.) or were flat-out comedies (Kindergarten Cop, Junior, etc.). Regrettably, try as he might, Schwarzenegger is no light comedian, though his bug-eyed mugging - note the basic similarity between the Blu-ray cover art and Home Alone's - is funny because it's so unbelievable on any level.
Critics loathed Jingle All the Way, though it's not quite as desperately unfunny as its reputation suggests. (How's that for faint praise?) It targets the unsavory commercialism of Christmas, just as Miracle on 34th Street had a half-century before, but where that genuine classic is witty and warm, Jingle All the Way is merely abrasive and phony. It bludgeons the viewer senseless with unrestrained slapstick and unpleasant characters and, more to the point, its oil-and-water mixture of dark social satire and drippy sentimentalism are constantly at odds with one another.
Workaholic Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger)*, having missed son Jamie's (Jake Lloyd) promotion ceremony in karate class, and having consistently let his boy down, has promised him a Turbo-Man action figure for Christmas, hoping to redeem himself in his child's eyes. "Whoever doesn't get one is gonna be a Big Loser!" Jamie says. However, on the night before Christmas Eve, Howard suddenly remembers that, despite wife Liz's (Rita Wilson) strict instructions to buy the toy weeks before, he's forgotten all about it. Panic-stricken, he's determined to get his hands on a Turbo-Man action figure - the hottest toy since the inexplicable Cabbage Patch Doll craze - at all costs. (There are numerous coincidental similarities between Turbo Man and Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear.)
Probably early on one or more of the film's credited writers conceived of something darker and more cynical. What was finally made shows some signs of this, but it also tries to be a rank-and-file family film determined to leave its audience feeling all warm and fuzzy by the fade out, and these two seemingly opposite approaches work at cross-purposes throughout. Most of the characters are gratingly unpleasant: unhelpful store clerks who openly guffaw at Howard's naïveté about the toy's popularity, department store Santas (led by James Belushi) who are nothing more than a bunch of money-grubbing crooks, a surly motorcycle cop (played by Battle of the Network Stars icon Robert Conrad), a tiresome and unrepentantly amorous next-door-neighbor (Phil Hartman) with designs on Liz. Even the reindeer are nasty in this one.
Meanwhile, Howard himself is pretty unpleasant, too. Eventually he stops just short of a stealing a coveted Turbo Man figure from the house next door (though he does break into the dwelling, destroying things and setting a room on fire). For most of the film, Howard has a rival in Myron Larabee (Sinbad), a mailman also looking for a Turbo Man figure for his kid. Predictably, as their desperation escalates, so too does their willingness to bang each other on the head like the Three Stooges.
What's odd, though - and I mean really, really odd - is that Myron goes way beyond desperate, and is more along the lines of Jim Carrey's Cable Guy. He's a genuinely unhinged mental case who'd gladly whip out an AK-47 and shoot everyone in sight if it meant getting his hands on one of the fabled Turbo Mans. It's like sticking Gena Rowlands's character from A Woman Under the Influence next door to the family from A Christmas Story.
A few surprising faces turn up over the course of the film, none of them used well. Harvey Korman and (for me, an unrecognizable) Laraine Newman appear in a Turbo Man TV show segment that more closely resembles a Japanese superhero program**; Martin Mull has nothing to do as a besieged DJ. The extended version has an awkwardly-inserted credit at the very end: "Yeardley Smith as Woman in Fur Coat," presumably added at somebody's insistence.
A truly dark and disturbing Christmas satire holds some promise, but mixed with standard holiday hijinks and sloppy sentiment that aspect of the film comes off half-hearted and unformed.
Video & Audio
Filmed in 1.85:1 spherical Panavision, Jingle All the Way is a 1080p, 50GB dual-layered disc with a 1.78:1 full screen presentation. It's a typically sharp if average high-def image with bright, varied color - a scene involving dozens of men dressed in Santa Claus suits reveals myriad, subtle shades of red. Both the theatrical and extended cut are included; I began watching the former, but I found the seamless branching a bit less than seamless - every time there was a cut the disc would freeze up for several seconds, like an extra-long layer-change on standard DVDs.
The 5.1 DTS HD Lossless Audio is loud and noisy, in keeping with the film. Originally DTS and Dolby Digital in theaters, the mix is up to contemporary standards for this kind of broad comedy. 5.1 Dolby Surround tracks in Spanish and French are included, as well as English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, and Thai subtitles, plus the disc is closed-captioned.
Note: The main menu is preceded by six long trailers for other Fox product, all of which are in high-def.
Mercifully, Jingle All the Way's extras are limited to three featurettes, two of which are clearly reaching for something to say; all are 16:9 standard-def. The Making of a Hero (15 1/2 minutes) is a standard VAM promo/retrospective show, mixing newer interviews with older behind-the-scenes footage, including the star walking around Universal's backlot wearing the Turbo Man costume and sporting a huge cigar the size of Ernie Kovacs.
Super Kids (eight minutes) is pretty lame; a group of kids discuss their ideal superhero character, carefully not mentioning the names of any trademarked characters. Turbo Man Behind the Mask (also eight minutes) is almost equally pointless - a pseudo-documentary about the supposed Turbo Man-mania that swept the nation back in 1996.
Film fans tired of the same holiday films year-after-year might get a minor kick out of Jingle All the Way for no other reason than it's something they might not have already seen. Once is more than enough, however, so don't feel compelled to buy: Rent It.
* Like Hungarian Bela Lugosi back in the '30s and '40s, Schwarzenegger often played characters with names wildly at odds with his Germanic roots. Some of his other roles: Detectives John Kimble and Jericho Cane, Gordy Brewer, and Ben Richards.
** The segment was filmed at Vasquez Rocks, an iconic movie location visible from the Antelope Valley Freeway. I realize now that the strange sets I saw out there while driving past it one weekend were from this movie.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.