Jingle All the Way

In the new formulaic star vehicle, Jingle All the Way, 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 dream of their fathers.

Based on a similar idea as Home Alone, which was directed by Chris Columbus who here functions as producer, though not nearly as accomplished or entertaining, this family comedy-adventure is certainly not a vantage Schwarzenegger kids picture on the order of Kindergarten Cop.

Laying the same guilt on parents for neglecting their children as Home Alone, Brian Levant's Jingle All the Way reverses the l990 blockbuster's point of view. Instead of focusing on the children, Randy Kornfield's slight tale centers on the desperate efforts of a workaholic father to get his son his desirable Christmas gift. End result is an erratic comedy that will frustrate children, the film's main target audience, as the kid doesn't get as sufficient screen time as his dad.

Schwarzenegger plays Howard Langston, a high-powered, work-obsessed businessman who, despite good intentions, always seems to miss important family events, such as the karate awards ceremonies of his son Jamie (Jake Lloyd, who currently can be seen in Unhook the Stars). Howard loves his devoted wife Liz (Rita Wilson) and their son, but he is just never around. As the movie begins, he's reminded by Liz about Jake's wish to get the action toy Turbo Man for Christmas. Howard goes into hysterical panic–it's Christmas eve and Turbo Man is not only the season's hottest gift, it's also been sold out since Thanksgiving.

In a manner of “Father Knows Best,” if not “Life With Father,” Howard begins an frantic down-to-the-wire trek to find Turbo Man, which turns out to be a much bigger challenge–and nightmare–than he had ever anticipated. Along 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 lose the one toy around.

Realizing that the material is extremely slender, scripter Kornfield has also 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 also periodic encounters with a “tough” cop, Officer Hummell (Robert Conrad), who seems to be around when least needed, as when Howard is speeding home, or rushing to yet another location to get the present.

To elevate his stature, Schwarzenegger has always shrewdly surrounded himself with second bananas. This movie follows the pattern, except that all the supporting figures are truly second bananas–as characters and actors. Howard is schematically contrasted with his neighbor Ted (Phil Hartman), the “touchy-feely” neighbor and “perfect” single father who had bought his son the Turbo Man months before the holiday. Only a notch above a stereotypical representation of a gay man, Ted wears apron, bakes cookies, and courts Liz–to Howard's furious amazement.

Though he has directed a number of commercial features (Beethoven, The Flinstons), Levant still can't shake his TV background as writer-producer of Happy Days and other popular series. Excepting its frenzied pacing, Jingle All the Way is broadly staged as a sitcom, with scenes that have momentum for 6 or 7 minutes at a time (waiting, as it were, for commercial interruption), lacking the necessary energy or continuity to sustain a feature-length movie.

The tale is most suitable for a short. Though the movie is one of the shortest in the Schwarzenegger pantheon, after the first reel, the yarn runs out of ideas and what ensues are variations on the same theme which–despite the madcap race–progressively get lugubrious. It's almost possible to predict the point at which kids will start going up and down the aisle–and parents look at their watches.

Even so, with two decades of screen acting to his credit, Schwarzenegger has developed a light comic delivery, punctuated by an occasionally ironic one-liner. Here, his deadpan expression and thick-accented phrasing of American slang provide his straight, yuppied character with a most welcome touch of humorous ease.

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 type 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 less than 60 stunt people, used in colorful and busy set pieces such as Minneapolis' Mall of America, reportedly the country's biggest.