I always have been, and always will be, a total mark for Christmas-themed media of all types. For me, the Christmas season begins right after the first night it’s cold enough to wear a jacket. What that means is that, here in Wisconsin, the only time of the year I’m not humming the theme from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is between late May and early August.
Side note: did you know that your eyelids can freeze if you cry in cold enough temperatures? Last year, I was chopping onions in our apartment in January, and stuck my head outside for some fresh air. I had to blow-dry my face for two minutes before I was convinced I hadn’t shouldered the burden of the world’s collective self-pleasure.
Anyway. I’ll watch anything Christmas-related at least once, sometimes once times eight thousand, which explains why, 18 years ago, I subjected myself to the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Sinbad “buddy” “comedy” “film” “Jingle All the Way.” At the age of 12, I was already old enough to know better, but impulsive enough to do it anyway; how little has changed today.
The movie, despite having grossed more than $120 million at the box office, was and still is largely panned, and not many films deserve it more. Though apparently conceptualized as a satire of sell-out toys like the Power Rangers and Tickle-Me Elmo, what instead resulted was something along the lines of a trippin’-balls orgy between K-Mart executives.
“Jingle All the Way” means to send up the frenzied hunt for marquee toys, but instead ends up glorifying them in a roundabout way. As we learned from “Scrooged,” you can’t make a dark holiday film without the threat of suicide, murder or stapling tiny antlers to stunt mice, and “Jingle All the Way” has none of that.
Despite the gripes, I’ll keep watching this pile of mall Santa fart residue each year. Here are its three saving graces:
1. Schwarzenegger and Sinbad Improv’d Most of Their Lines
You expect to hear this kind of thing out of our greatest comedians and/or method actors: Bill Murray and Chevy Chase reportedly ad-libbed their way through about 99 percent of “Caddyshack,” and the result is one of the two or three funniest movies of all time. Robert de Niro completely improvised the infamous “You talkin’ to me?” scene in “Taxi Driver.” Fluid, organic response can sometimes be much more powerful than the scripted word, and films like that are enduring proof.
And then we have this. Sinbad is actually a pretty funny comic, and good lord does he give it his all in this movie, chewing scenery like a rabid dog and just generally outshining everyone he shares the screen with.
Schwarzenegger, though, for whatever reason, chose to improvise many of his responses to Sinbad’s character and, possibly due to complicated rites meant to invoke the rise of some ancient Elder God, most of it stayed in the movie. It’s like watching an audience member pulled onstage to participate in a two-hour “Whose Line is it Anyway?” bit, and it sometimes reaches Lynchian levels of surreality. Speaking of…
2. The Whole Thing Might Take Place in the Kid’s Head
“Jingle All the Way” marked the first major film appearance by Jake Lloyd, who would later go on to play an instrumental part in George Lucas’ harried efforts to destroy that which we love most. He plays Schwarzenegger’s son, who is, predictably, depressed because his dad works too much and blah blah blah not around for Christmas blah. The kid covets, like all other children in this movie’s eldritch universe, a Turbo Man action figure, which is the crux of what plot we actually get here.
His best friend and next door neighbor — whose name I absolutely refuse to bother finding out — has a seemingly idyllic home life: a dad (Phil Hartman! PHIL HARTMAN!) who dotes on him, rescues wounded reindeer, makes hot chocolate for the neighborhood, etc. Lloyd, of course, is envious.
Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger’s quest for the Turbo Man toy, by the film’s end, more resembles a John Woo/Michael Bay double-feature than a family-friendly holiday film, as he and Sinbad physically assault store clerks, threaten radio DJs and just generally spend an hour beating the crap out of each other.
The movie culminates in — deep breath — SCHWARZENEGGER AND SINBAD DRESSING UP LIKE TURBO MAN AND HIS ARCH-NEMESIS AND HAVING AN HONEST TO GOD, ROCKET-POWERED SUPERHERO FIGHT AT THE CITY’S CHRISTMAS PARADE.
If that is not an elaborate fantasy concocted by Schwarzenegger’s neglected son in order to escape his own crappy home life, then someone has got to be kidding. If the gritty reboot of “Jingle All the Way” doesn’t retcon that kid as a patient in a 1930s insane asylum, I refuse to see it more than six times.
3. Phil Hartman Is Just, Like, Phil Hartmanning All Over the Place
“Jingle All the Way” was Hartman’s second-to-last film, right next to “Small Soldiers,” and he is easily the best part of each one. Here, he’s classically smarmy, coming onto Schwarzenegger’s wife as he senses her dissatisfaction with her husband’s workaholic nature and exhibiting a general need to one-up everyone around him. Eventually, we find out that he and his wife divorced, which is when he started to become the Dad of the Year to his son, because character development is something we dearly crave in “Jingle All the Way.”
Hartman is, along with Bill Murray and Christopher Walken, someone who can make you laugh by just appearing onscreen: he’s charismatic, the perfect blend of straight man and comic genius. He has about 20 combined minutes of actual screen time, and those are the only 20 minutes that matter.