Very bad Santas indeed: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Howard cannot believe the crude commercial cynicism of the men dressed in red, including James Belushi

The pressure to be the perfect parent and secure the kid’s gift at Christmastime leads a frazzled Dad a merry consumerist dance

EVERY TIME A TILL RINGS, AN ANGEL DIES A LITTLE MORE INSIDE

IT IS DECEMBER 23RD, and while a party rages beyond his office door, Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarnegger) is still hard at it. He is the proverbial workaholic, missing both his young son, James’ karate class where the boy wins an award, and tardy with helping put up his family’s Christmas decorations. So much so in fact, that Ted (Phil Hartman), his oh-so-perfect divorcee neighbour, is putting up the house lights instead – and clearly has designs on Howard’s wife, Liz (Rita Wilson) while he’s there. (On Christmas Eve, he’ll have hired a live reindeer for his son, John, boasting to Howard: ‘I’m of the mindset that you can never do too much to make a child’s Christmas magical.’) To add to it, this year’s ‘Hottest-Selling Christmas Toy Ever!’ is a Turbo-Man action doll. And while Howard will lie to his stressed wife that of course James will be unwrapping the toy on Christmas Day because whoever doesn’t get one ‘is going to be a real loser’, he never got round to buying one and now it’s too late. The pressure is on.

Brian Levant’s Jingle All The Way (1996) ties up the familiar trope of a busy parent not there for their child’s special moments as seen in Jack Frost (1998), with the annual pressure placed on parents at Christmas to find the latest fashionable toy to give their children. The pre-title credit sequence shows Turboman in action, his watchword being ‘You can always count on me.’ James has already learnt that this superhero is more reliable than his own Dad, and is fast losing patience at Howard’s broken promises and lame excuses.

A Fevered Dual Of Desperation

The trouble is that Howard isn’t only in competititon with the shops and their stock in tracking down the favoured toy at the last minute. There are other fathers just like him such as local postman, Marlon (Sinbad), and in their dual battle to track one down there will be run ins with the police, charges through shops and malls, and fisticuffs. The adults, pumped up with Christmas sales fever will turn as mad as the crooks of Bad Santa (2003). Yet Howard, for all his insane desperation will retain focus on his boy however out of kilter his obsessive hunt for the ‘perfect toy’ happens to be. In a dodgy Santa and Elf workshop he is flabbergasted to see a Turboman priced at $300 which turns out to only speak Spanish. It brings him to his senses. As far as Howard is concerned they are not simpy a bunch of sleazy conmen in red suits: they are ‘Conmen, thieves, degenerates, low-lifes, thugs, criminals!‘ A Santa attack ends up with the lot of them being tasered.

Howard is slow to learn and remains way too liberal with his promises to his son, telling that he’ll make the Wintertainment Parade. His call to James falls on deaf ears. It is the last straw: ‘You never keep ypur promises. You never do anything you say you’ll do. Ever.’ It’s a complete contrast to Turbo-Man advising children to : ‘Always keep your promises if you want to keep your friends.’ Marlon has himself spent his life disappointed by his own father’s slackness and failure to bring home the toy he wanted: ‘For my old man, Christmas was just another opportunity to let me down,’ he confides to Howard, and Howard suddenly realises he could well be watching his future grown-up son in the drink-happy postman.

Fatherly Love Strangled By The Need To Buy

There is a feeble attempt at a Dickensian morality tale within Jingle All The Way. Except it cannot withstand the stronger pro-consumption message of this family movie. Certainly, ‘perfect neighbour’ Ted’s fortunes fall. Shut out of the family home, he breaks in with a credit card even as carollers wassle: ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ outside. He can only leave a present for his son with a tag: ‘To Johnny from your Loving Father’. Jingle All The Way is about absent fathers who attempt to rebuild broken connections with their children, notably their sons.

At the Wintertainment Parade, a Santa orchestra plays ‘Jingle Bells’. (Subtext: the guys in red aren’t all bad.) Howard, by now clad in a Turbo-Man outfit complete with jetpack is in full pelt with Sinbad as they battle it out to get hold of the last toy. When Howard calls out his son’s name, only the boy himself will wonder how the superhero knows who he is. Neither he nor his mother recognise Howard’s heavy Austrian accent.

Boy Is Father To The Man

Howard manages to keep his promise to his son and hands him the toy, but this leaves Sinbad empty-handed and he breaks down: ‘I had it! I had it!. What am I gonna tell my son on Christmas morning? How am I gonna look him in the eye?Jingle All The Way notes a shopping trend of Christmastime but this is not an anti-consumerist film. It doesn’t in the end challenge what parents do or offer any real alternative to the seasonal buying madness.

James the boy has some sense, and perhaps recognises Sinbad’s understandable desperation. He hands over his much-prized toy to the man and wishes him: ‘Merry Christmas‘. James does the right thing: ‘What do I need the doll for? I\ve got the real Turbo-Man at home.’ And doesn’t tht put even more pressure on Howard to step up to the plate! As it is, there’s a rather sweet and amusing pay-off between husband and wife seen through a front window as they put the star on the Christmas tree to the strains of ‘O,Tannenbaum’. It brings to mind the ending to the previous year’s Toy Story.

Ironically, Jingle All The Way for all its likely attraction as a family film, ends up as much a purveyor of crude cynical commercialism as the Crooked Santas themselves!

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