For years, I knew Jingle All The Way, the 22nd top-grossing film of 1996, primarily as a running gag on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. Whenever the show’s faux-Arnold Schwarzenegger (a still image of the actor with the lips cut out to present the illusion that he was talking) appeared on the show, he would make sure to throw in a plug for what he invariably referred to as his “smash-hit holiday classic Jingle All The Way.” It was a profoundly silly bit that never failed to make me laugh.
It wasn’t until today, however, that I got to experience Jingle All The Way myself. Boy oh boy, am I kicking myself for all those wasted years, because it is one of the most mindlessly kinetic, over-the-top, just plain batshit-insane Christmas movies ever made. Schwarzenegger stars as Howard Langston, an ordinary man with the physique of a world-class bodybuilder who causes what appears to be anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars’ worth of damage through his city in a mad bid to prove to his worth to his son. Not since the Blues Brothers destroyed Illinois has someone gone so far to such screamingly pointless ends.
Jingle All The Way begins by establishing Howard as the worst kind of human garbage: a dad who routinely misses seminal moments in the young life of his son Jamie (Jake Lloyd, only three years away from becoming the most reviled child actor in human history, thanks to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) because he’s out providing for his family financially. In this case, that means missing his son’s latest karate meet, an oversight that in films like these qualify as child abuse punishable by death and/or life in prison.
In an early indication of where the film’s head is at, when Jamie tells his dad that everyone at school will think he’s a loser if he doesn’t get the TurboMan action figure, Howard refrains from telling his son that he shouldn’t care about the opinions about such materialistic little monsters. Instead, he insists he will get the TurboMan action figure, even if that means destroying all humanity. The slick-talking, glad-handing Howard promises to make it up to his snotty, entitled creep of a son by getting him a toy whose scarcity has already become the stuff of popular legend. Howard heads to a toy store to try to buy the doll, but he’s greeted with jeering laughter by fellow customers who cannot even conceive that Howard doesn’t realize that the Hope Diamond is easier to procure than a TurboMan this late in the Christmas season.
This sets Howard off on a nightmarish, migraine-inducing (both for himself and the audience) trek through the little-known seedy underbelly of the Christmas world. He tries to buy a toy from a scuzzy bootlegger played by Schwarzenegger’s old Red Heat co-star James Belushi, only to realize the Belush is selling bogus, stolen merchandise. Howard develops a friendship/rivalry with postman Myron Larabee (the once mildly popular stand-up comic and sitcom star Sinbad), who agrees with him that if children don’t get the specific toy they desire for Christmas, their faith in humanity will crumble and their lives will become one long slog toward death row.
One of the many perplexing aspects of Jingle All The Way is that it’s ostensibly a change of pace for Schwarzenegger, who was best-known at the time for his ultra-violent action movies. Yet the film contains more kicking, punching, lunging, flailing, tripping, and all-around violent slapstick than anything the action icon has ever done. True, all this frenetic violence is in service of procuring an action figure for a small boy rather than taking down a Mexican drug cartel, but the wall-to-wall violence, however goofy, is nevertheless pervasive and repellent. Even when playing an ordinary guy who just wants to do right by his family for Christmas, Schwarzenegger is a whirl of flying fists and unthinking destruction.
Like Kindergarten Cop, Twins, and Junior before it, Jingle All The Way was designed to highlight Schwarzenegger’s comic chops. I happen to think Schwarzenegger is a hilarious man, but he is not a hilarious actor—his onscreen comic arsenal is limited to bugging out his eyes in wide-eyed horror when something does not go his way. And nothing goes right for our overmatched protagonist in Jingle All The Way: When he breaks into a radio studio to demand a toy from a DJ played by Martin Mull, he’s informed that the contest he’s competing for is merely for a certificate for a TurboMan doll, not the real thing. And what could be more worthless than a mere guarantee for a hotly desired consumer good? Meanwhile, Howard’s wife Liz (Rita Wilson) is pursued sexually by neighbor Ted Maltin (a smarmy Phil Hartman), a recent divorcee who wants to assure Liz she’ll always have a place in his heart—and bed—once she realizes Howard is the kind of guy who seldom makes good on his promises.
Directed by Brian Levant (The Flintstones, Beethoven), Jingle All The Way is one of the most mindlessly flailing films I’ve ever seen. It’s paced like a runaway train, making Crank and Requiem For A Dream feel glacial by comparison. Perhaps that’s because if it slowed down and let viewers really think over the film’s actions for even a moment, they would realize how insultingly idiotic it is to nearly destroy an entire city for the sake of some snot-nosed brat getting the toy he wants on Christmas. The film sometimes takes on the quality of a fever dream, as when, apropos of nothing, Howard is mistaken for the actor playing TurboMan in the big Christmas parade, and outfitted in a suit that includes a working jet-pack, which of course goes off at precisely the wrong time. This imperils not just Howard, but also all the children, parents, and other revelers who are nearly knocked over or driven into walls by the giant man careening about in his one-of-a-kind jetsuit.
By assuming the role of TurboMan, Howard is given the opportunity to give a special TurboMan to one lucky boy along the parade route, and in a 180 from everything that’s come before, the status-and-materialism-obsessed Jamie decides to give the action figure to a friend, because he has the “real” TurboMan at home. That last-minute turnabout makes Jingle All The Way part of a curious subsection of Christmas movies where people treat each other with unspeakable cruelty for 80 minutes before deciding in the last five or so that Christmas really is about love, family, and generosity.
Oddly enough, the film Jingle All The Way most reminded me of was Robert Zemeckis’ infinitely better, but similarly manic directorial debut, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, a Beatles-free Beatles movie about the crazed machinations that ensue when a gang of teenyboppers learn that that objects of their desire are in town, and revert to an almost animalistic state in an attempt to reach them. Jingle All The Way features humanity at its worst, and it’s tempting to imagine how a genuine satirist like Zemeckis or Bad Santa director Terry Zwigoff would have used the premise to explore the dark, eviscerating heart of capitalism through the seemingly wholesome prism of a dad’s desire to get a nice gift for his son. But Jingle All The Way doesn’t have a satirical bone in its body. It’s a live-action cartoon that accidentally depicts the yuletide season as a Kafka-esque nightmare where every step forward is met by three steps back. Its sole, fuzzy message seems to be that a man must become a god—or at least a superhero—to make up for the unforgivable transgression of missing a kid doing karate.
Then again, I was impressed by the film’s unstoppable velocity, the way it keeps careening forward with little on its mind but reaching the finish line as quickly and mindlessly as possible. Perhaps I’m being just a little too hard on it. When it comes right down to it, the film is about two raging assholes (Howard and Myron) violently competing with each other for the sake of procuring a meaningless bit of consumer product that will probably be discarded or forgotten by February. If that isn’t a potent metaphor for the rancid materialism of Christmas, I don’t know what is.
And because Christmas is about mindless tradition above all, audiences longing for a continuation of the Jingle All the Way saga have now been bestowed the gift of Jingle All The Way 2, a long-in-the-works sequel starring Larry The Cable Guy, which came out earlier this week. Schwarzenegger doesn’t return, of course, but the spirit of mercenary greed will undoubtedly remain the same.