Jingle All the Way is a typical feel-good, family-oriented Hollywood Christmas film, loosely falling in the same category as the Home Alone film series (which producer Chris Columbus was also involved with). It is driven by a simple premise and plot, which unfolds against a scenery of prosperous suburbia and mid-Western shopping centres, all postcard beautiful among snow and a superabundance of joyous decorations.
Here we encounter Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a workaholic salesman who fails to make time for his family. After missing his young son’s karate show one evening, he is deeply apologetic and eager to make amends. The child angrily demands a Turbo Man action figure, which Howard agrees to get for him. During a subsequent conversation with his wife, Liz (Rita Wilson), it turns out she had assigned him the task of purchasing this same toy weeks ago, something which Howard, as usual, had quickly forgotten. This puts him a difficult situation, as the following day is Christmas Eve. Howard assures his wife that he had the doll. In morning, Howard tells his wife he has to pop round the office to pick up his son’s Turbo Man and dashes out to Minneapolis’ shopping centres to get the doll.
It turns out, of course, that the Turbo Man had been much on demand that season and that the doll is long sold out everywhere. What follows, then, is Howard’s mad race to find a copy, which pits him in cutthroat competition with hordes of equally determined last-minute shoppers. Throughout this chaotic adventure, Howard faces two unscrupulous adversaries: one is Myron (Sinbad), a crazed postal worker and his main competitor in the struggle for Turbo Man; the other is Ted (Phil Hartman), a recently divorced neighbor and smarmy ‘superdad’, who takes advantage of Howard’s absenteeism progressively to make inroads with his wife. Of course, after over an hour of reverses and vicissitudes, the plot resolves itself in a satisfactory manner: Myron gets his doll, Ted is repelled, and Howard more than succeeds in his task, reforming himself in the process. Both the acting the and the situations are ridiculously hyperbolic, however, displaying the violence and cartoonishness of a children’s program: they reminded me of the characters and situations I described in Mister, only without the grim, dystopian element.
What is particularly sad about this film is that it was not just a satire of the commercialization of Christmas in general, even if it was conceived that way; but that it is also a satire specifically of real-life Christmas toy sell-outs in America, like those seen with Cabbage Patch Kids and the Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger figures during the late 1980s and early 1990s. And, indeed, one cannot help but marvel at the importance given by the characters in the film to a cheap-looking plastic doll—one that would most likely be forgotten by the following year: the Turbo Man figure, because impossibly scarce, on a crucial day and with a fast-approaching time horizon, acquires the characteristics of a rare gem, gold dust, the holy grail, and the philosopher’s stone. But marvel turns into perplexity when one finds that this is not just a metaphor for a generic phenomenon, but a depiction—if somewhat cartoonified—of real life experience.
It also bears noticing Jamie’s room: it is decorated with murals of comic book heroes,and cluttered with a stupefying collection of toys—hundreds of them, which must have been arriving at a rate of one a week every week ever since he was old enough to own toys. Either Jamie is an insatiable or competitive toy collector or else his parents have been smothering him with presents in an effort compensate for the lack of something with greater value. Similar films, especially Home Alone III, have also shown, presenting it as normal, White middle class suburban boys in rooms flooded with an incredible hoard of toys and colourfully branded children’s paraphernalia, so this in itself is a negative depiction of American childhood. Yet, in the wider context of the film, it reinforces the critique of consumerism, particularly when it is revealed, at the end of the film, that it is not toys that make a child happy, but a father that present and involved with the family.
Sad as these depictions are, and despite the fact that the critique of consumerism is purely secular, they drive a message that is clearly positive. What is more, they frame others that are even more so.
One is found in the Langston marriage. Howard and Liz are still together, and, despite his absenteeism, the marriage appears functional and solid. It is, in addition, heterosexual and monoracial. This being a calculated feel-good comedy, the implication is that this is the norm, and that deviations from this paradigm, inconceivable half a century ago, are unsettling for many middle class Whites—or still were when the film was released in 1996. The grand levelers have since dynamited yet more barriers in their quest for an equal society, and we can already see family comedies about lesbian households in mainstream cinemas without controversy.
Another is that Howard retains his leadership role in the Langston household, even if this leadership has been weakened by his absenteeism and tardy compensatory efforts. If Jamie is disappointed by his father’s absences it is because he still looks up to him, because he expects Howard properly to play the role of a father. If Liz is impatient with Howard it is also for the latter reason. The underlying message is, therefore, that a fatherhood excellence is not simply efficacy in resource acquisition, but meaningful and active involvement, both in the intra-family relationships and in the protection from external predations.
The latter part of the message highlights yet another one. We are shown that absenteeism by the man of the household leaves open avenues for insolent pretenders. The deceptive Ted, who is locked into a battle to seduce any and all the women around him through conspicuous displays of thoughtfulness, forward planning, generosity, and conscientiousness, begins zeroing in on Liz while Howard battles in the shopping centers to get his son’s Turbo Man. Liz is not wise to Ted’s cynical ploys, and as the film progresses Howard, at first too preoccupied or too tired to take immediate action, sees Ted worming himself ever more deeply into his household. Eventually, the situation escalates to the point where Ted has Liz captive inside his SUV, and Ted moves in for the kill. Liz of course rejects him, and Ted is humiliated, so finally the audience can relax; but despite this outcome there are ambiguous hints earlier on in Liz’s behavior suggesting that, given enough time, the absent Howard could well eventually lose her to a more competent, more involved predator. Evidently the ambiguity is designed to build tension with this subplot, but it reinforces in this area the Darwinian subtext present throughout the film, the subtext stating that ours is a competitive world, filled with devious, ruthless, and often violent predators, who will stop at nothing to get a slice of the cake—even ours.
Some—e.g., critical theorists—would argue that Columbus’ film has fascistic undertones, which could only be a good sign.
Admittedly, the film is not perfect: the intended critique of the commercialization of Christmas could have been driven more strongly, or delivered more sharply, and, because it is weak, becomes overwhelmed by the auxiliary didactic subtexts. There is also no attempt to go beyond established Hollywood formulas in terms of acting and delivery, and the lines are not as clever as they could have been; the absurd situations Howard finds himself in, his frenetic rush, and the malice of his adversaries, are far more amusing than the dialogue. Indeed, it seems Sinbad improvised 70% of his lines and Arnold did a fair amount of improvising himself. More time should have been spent sharpening the script and bringing the sociological, character, and spiritual dimensions more ingeniously into relief. This said, overall this is a pleasant, easy film to watch, much in the Chris Columbus’ mold, nominally depicting the attempt by ordinary Americans to uphold old-fashioned (American) values in a changing and hostile world—one ironically defined by the Classical Liberalism upon which the American republic was founded. And a by no means negligible bonus is our not being force-fed explicit multiracial animalism and sex, feminist misandry, rub-it-in-your-face gayness, or any of the gleefully and maliciously distasteful transgressions routinely pushed by an ever-increasing proportion of the modern American film and television industries. I am sure a talented film-maker coming from an outsider perspective would have made an excellent film based on Jingle’s premise. Let us hope such a film-maker appears before long.