The Last Action Figure
Alas, Jingle All the Way may be the most realistic Christmas movie ever made. After all, what says “Christmas” more these days than the spectacle of supposed grownups clawing tooth and nail for the season’s hot toy in an effort to indulge their ignored and neglected and simultaneously spoiled rotten TV-addled brats?
Jamie Langston (Jake Lloyd: The Phantom Menace) is the kind of prepubescent tyke who in real life would be only a few short years away from shooting up his high school, but in the movies (and on TV sitcoms) somehow is already wiser and more eloquent than the adults around him, particularly his parents. See, his workaholic dad, Howard (Arnold Schwarzenegger: End of Days, Batman and Robin — “Howard Langston”? With an Austrian accent? Huh?), is constantly disappointing his only son: working late, missing events of overweening importance in a kid’s mind — like Jamie’s karate class graduation — and so on. So Howard figures he’ll win back the kid’s favor by surprising him on Christmas morning with the one toy he wants.
A Buzz Lightyear wannabe (Jingle All the Way hit the screens the Christmas after Toy Story), TurboMan is star of a cheesy, pulpy sci-fi TV series and TurboMan: The Motion Picture. His action figure is “the hottest-selling Christmas toy ever.” And Arnold– I mean, Howard now has to fight for the last few remaining TurboMans with all the other parents trying to buy the affection of their kids. On Christmas Eve.
Jingle All the Way doesn’t quite send up the kind of mass insanity that grips parents at Christmastime so much as celebrate it. Jamie, at eight or whatever he is, is already the consummate consumer, rising in the morning from his TurboMan-sheeted bed (in which he was reading a TurboMan comic book) in his TurboMan-wallpapered room to munch TurboMan cereal while watching TurboMan on TV. A huge chunk of the film, rather appropriately, takes place at the Mall of America, a veritable cathedral to gimme. The postman Myron Larabee (Sinbad), whom Howard keeps butting heads with over TurboMan dolls, is made to look like an idiot for expressing anti-consumerist ‘tude, as if fighting over toys the little brats are gonna get bored with in a month’s time is not only normal behavior but something to be lauded. Is Jingle All the Way true to life? You bet. That’s the most depressing thing about it.
If you can look past the message of greed and the film’s surprising if slapsticky violence, there are some funny moments. Schwarzenegger is a very appealing comic actor, and as much as I felt that the film would have been even funnier with a nebbishy little dad fighting like a berskerker for a TurboMan (would anyone really dare run afoul of a big dude like Arnold, or pick a fight with him, as one mall Santa does?), Schwarzenegger does get the chance to send up his own action-hero persona. The mall elf named Tony is a riot, as is the rather nefarious operation run by a team of ersatz Santas on the outskirts of town, into which Howard stumbles. And Phil Hartman (Small Soldiers) — whose comedy will forever more elicit feelings of sadness as well as delight in me, due to the senseless waste of his death — is here in all his smarmy glory as the neighborhood’s divorced dad who’s a little too eager to play the attentive husband to all the lonely housewives around him.
It all ends rather unsatisfyingly, however. Howard ends up back in Jamie’s good graces through no effort of his own but thanks to sheer dumb luck and circumstance; Jamie gets the Christmas spirit out of nowhere (Howard does not deserve to have his kid turn out so well); and the movie misses the irony — which was so obvious a sticky sentiment that I was astounded it went by uncommented on — that all the time Howard wasted on a lovely Christmas Eve running from toy store to toy store was time he could have spent with his son. Which was really all the kid wanted in the first place.