This might sound like a crazy statement to make, but Arnold Schwarzenegger is not a bad actor. Granted, the overwhelming majority of the films he has starred in have been on the action variety. I do not think he would necessarily complain about the track of his career. He has appeared in some of the most iconic action films of all time, perhaps chief among them being the Terminator franchise. These roles do not demand a great deal of acting prowess, particularly the cyborg from the future. Monotone line delivery is worked into the script, and this helps given the Austrian’s accent. Yet, there have been times when he has been allowed to branch out, like Twins (1988) and Kindergarten Cop (1990). Granted, these comedic roles typically relied on his trademark physique providing an absurd juxtaposition to whoever was opposite him. Yet, there is one part he played where being muscular is not the raison d’etre for the character, and that is as Howard Langston in Jingle All the Way (1996).
The first thing to understand about Howard in Jingle All the Way is that he is a well-meaning workaholic. While his office celebrates an office Christmas party, he is making phone calls to clients, giving each the same phony sounding line about every one being his favorite customer. These words come so easily that he says them to his wife, Liz (Rita Wilson), when she calls to remind him about their son Jamie’s (Jake Lloyd) karate performance. Unsurprisingly, Howard ends up working too late, believing he has enough time to make it at the appointed hour. When he attempts to skip past traffic by riding the shoulder, a police officer stops him and gives him a field sobriety test. Getting home after Jamie and Liz have returned, Howard attempts to make amends with his only child. Jamie’s understanding makes it worse, and in order to make up for his mistake, Howard vows to get Jamie the “Turbo Man” doll the boy wants for Christmas. After this exchange, Liz reminds Howard that he had promised earlier in the year that he would buy the oversized action figure. It being Christmas Eve the next day, and the toy being in exceedingly high demand, the prospects of obtaining it seem bleak. Nonetheless, Howard sets out in the wee hours the following day to find it, only to step into the chaos of thousands of other people attempting to do the same thing. Though friendly at first, as the dust settles at the first store he looks in at, his main adversary in his quest becomes postal worker Myron Larabee (Sinbad). After this tussle, Howard encounters a mall Santa (Jim Belushi), who, for $500, promises to get Howard the prize the hopeful father seeks. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a counterfeit version that speaks Spanish, and falls apart as soon as it is out of the box. Having accomplished nothing and getting more stressed, Howard calls home and angrily admonishes Jamie for wanting the thing his dad is so desperately trying to find. This drives a wedge between father and son, making Howard feel worse. A new hope arises, though, when on the radio at the diner he had stopped at, the DJ (Martin Mull) proclaims that the first person to successfully call in and name all eight of Santa’s reindeer will win a Turbo Man doll. Myron, who had been at the same diner, overhears this as well, but Howard has control of the phone. When Myron renders the phone useless, it elicits a mad dash on foot to the radio station between the two. When they get there, and Howard seems to have the upper hand, Myron pulls out a package from his mail satchel, claiming it is a bomb. Howard manages to elude the police, but when he finds his car looted, he decides to give up the search, go home, and explain his failure. When he does so, Howard finds his neighbor Ted Maltin (Phil Hartman) in his house, fulfilling his role as father, and bragging about the Turbo Man doll he had bought for his own son. In retaliation, he decides to break into Ted’s house and steal the doll, though this too is thwarted by an angry reindeer that Ted keeps as part of his overachieving Christmas decorations. The ruckus alerts Ted to Howards intrusion, along with Liz and Jamie, and they decide to go to the Christmas parade without Howard. Thinking all is lost, Howard resigns himself to attending the parade and dealing with the disappointment. Once he gets there, he encounters the same police officer from his traffic stop and the radio station, and ducks into a nearby building. This happens to be where the parade participants are preparing, specifically those performing on the Turbo Man float. Howard is mistaken for the person supposed to be filling the role of the hero, which he goes along with because it allows him to pick one child to receive a Turbo Man doll. Yet, Myron, still determined to achieve his own goal, dresses as Turbo Man’s nemesis Dementor and takes the toy from Howard. Jamie gets mixed up in the resulting battle, but is ultimately saved by Howard and Myron is handcuffed. What saves the mailman from arrest is Jamie, who hands him the Turbo Man doll. He does because when he sees his dad is Turbo Man, he realizes that he has the real thing at home.
Jamie’s act at the end of Jingle All the Way speaks to the real spirit of Christmas. Yes, he wanted the Turbo Man doll. Howards attempts to attain the toy are over the top and played for laughs. At the same time, even if it is in a frenzied state, you can at least admire his desire to do something special for his child. After all, as the old saying goes, it is the thought that counts. Despite this, the one thing that Jamie really wants is a meaningful relationship with his dad. There is nothing material about this wish, and that is why it is more in keeping with Christmas than purchasing the latest bauble everyone wants. Put differently, Jesus was not born so that dads could buy Turbo Man figures for their sons. One aspect of the Christmas season that is not talked about much is how when Jesus is born unto Mary, they become what the Church refer to as the Holy Family, along with her husband Joseph. Though concrete references to this nuclear unit are brief in the Bible, they nonetheless reveal a family that care about one another. When Jesus is taken as a boy to the temple in Jerusalem, which you can read about in Luke 2, He stays behind. Apparently, this was not the intended course of action, and though Joseph and Mary leave without Jesus, Luke does relate their concern. While the franticness of their search for Jesus is presented in a much different tone than today’s film, it is a familial feeling that we can infer was present from the moment of Jesus’ birth. It also speaks to the gift that is merely the company of loved ones that is at the heart of the movie.
I was pleasantly surprised by Jingle All the Way, as I have been lately for many of the Christmas movies I have been watching. There are so many films about this season out there, and my assumption (right or wrong) is that the majority of them are, at best, mediocre cash grabs hoping to profit from the time of year. Still, aside from Schwarzenegger’s comedic chops, this film has a great heart to it. Now, if we can only figure out what happened to Jake Lloyd.