ZERO STARS/**** Image C Sound C+
starring Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Roundtree, Tony Curtis
screenplay by Janet Brownell, based on the screenplay by Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini and story by Aileen Hamilton
directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger
JINGLE ALL THE WAY
ZERO STARS/**** Image B Sound C+
starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Phil Hartman, Rita Wilson
screenplay by Randy Kornfield
directed by Brian Levant
by Walter Chaw A man of many talents (a jag-off of all trades, let's say), the honourable Arnold A. Schwarzenegger made his directorial debut with the 1992 telefilm Christmas in Connecticut, a remake of a 1945 Barbara Stanwyck flick and the sort of unqualified failure that finds something like thirty dozen ways to redefine "fatuous." Dyan Cannon, she of the toothy, shark-like grin, stars as Elizabeth Blane, a popular cooking-show host without any actual cooking skills who's led around by her pert snoot by her queen of a producer, Alexander (Tony Curtis, playing Harvey Fierstein). When heroic Colorado park ranger Jefferson Jones (Kris Kristofferson, one definition of "fatuous" all by his own self) saves a kid from the wilderness, Alexander hatches the brilliant plan to capitalize on Grizzly Adams's national hero status by inviting him to a live broadcast of a fake dinner at a fake house in Connecticut populated by a family of terrible actors and an unspeakable mammy stereotype. It's hard to draw the line between fiction and reality sometimes, isn't it?
The tension of the film has something to do with whether or not dim-bulb Jefferson ("I always seen m'self as more-a four-AM, black coffee n' flapjacks kind-er feller") will figure out that Elizabeth is as much of a media creation as he is. As Elizabeth struggles to keep her fake family together with a pasted-on picket smile and a toss of her genuinely alarming mop of hair, we come to a realization that Arnie is trying to wring pathos from this scenario. Thrown mashed potatoes, geriatric Curtis rushing around in a desperate attempt to single-handedly resurrect the screwball of Some Like it Hot, and various other manufactured bits of business conspire to rupture the fabric of reality. It appears for all the world that, brace yourself, Kristofferson and Cannon were encouraged to improvise long exchanges in their courtship--up to and including a schizophrenic falling-in-love musical montage that has the slap-happy couple swinging an axe around wildly and laughing like loons. Christmas in Connecticut is bowel-jellying awful. But for as bad as it is, it's still not the Schwarzenegger vehicle Jingle All the Way.
It's really tempting, I mean it, to praise Brian Levant's terrifying Jingle All the Way as the ultimate satire of the way that the Christmas holiday in the United States has taken on all the lustre of a whore-rustle presided over by a whip-happy pimp. It's impossible not to wonder if the film wasn't originally conceived as some sort of pitch-black commentary on exactly how hypocritical the nation has become under the rising howl of an administration that caters to a shockingly large demographic comprised of what Maureen Dowd calls an "America awash in selective piety, situational moralists, and cherry-picking absolutists." The God in which we trust, surprise to no one, is the Illuminati eye on the dollar bill: Christmas is the largest marketing opportunity in the nation and damned if catering to the pocketbooks of the weekend pious doesn't pay off in spades. Ask Mel Gibson--brace for a restraining order, but ask him anyway. The practice of buying indulgences didn't die with the Middle Ages, it just sort of metastasized into something black and malignant at the heart of our society.
Except Jingle All the Way is a sociological satire in the way that Leni Riefenstahl's films for Hitler were sociological satires--it's interesting solely because of what we bring to the conversation. Observed by itself, it's mute witness and looking-glass war. (Like pornography, Jingle All the Way says a lot about us while just being interested in getting its audience off.) It is, in fact, a celebration of ugliness and venality, a shameless wallow in the desperation circling listless like a shark in the middle of our upper-middle class suburban oasis. Here in this film find the seeds for school shootings and office violence, for domestic incidents and divorce. Child abuse? There's probably never been a better look at the root causes of it; and the case against television is made with a deadly precision. Jingle All the Way is surgical in its dissection of what's wrong with our cinema and how those ills reflect the sickness that festers in our society. The level of consent that we have to the events and attitudes depicted therein lay the groundwork for a pretty good explanation of why it is that there's more hate in our world at this moment, eight years after the film's theatrical release, then there has been in decades. We've been buying this karma for a long time now, and the bill's come due.
In this world, Howard Langston (Hon. Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a typical Minnesota WASP: Facile and deceitful, he lies to his customers at his job while feeding them an obsequious huck, and at home he neglects his harridan wife (Rita Wilson) and his insufferable moppet (Jake Lloyd--soon to be immortalized by George Lucas as the emblem of an entire generation's disgust and disillusionment). Christmas Eve finds Howie without his boy's present, a super-popular fad doll of a superhero called "Turboman"--a media-driven confection much like Arnie himself (why else layer one's speeches with movie lines whilst stumping for office? (see also: Ronald Reagan)). And so he acquires his own archenemy in postal worker Myron (Sinbad) and proceeds to toss dwarfs, beat up department-store Santas, and terrify children in his quest to buy, at any cost, his spoiled child's silence for one morning. Myron, meanwhile, threatens police with a bomb hidden in a Christmas present in a stunt that was stupid in 1996 but is actively vile in 2004. Guess all's fair in war and killing folks so that the kids can get what they've been brainwashed to demand by their picture-tube babysitter.
The punchline of Jingle All the Way is that when all's said and done, the happy ending is facilitated by the successful acquisition of the plastic prize. There are no realizations that health and hearth are more important grails, no concessions that the larcenous ways that everyone has behaved has stained everyone's soul. By the end of the piece, the characters are each and every bit as unrealized as they were at the beginning--and not a one of Arnold's toothy promises to his jilted nuclear kinfolk does anything to assuage the creeping suspicion that come Monday morning, he'll be back to his old tricks.
Featuring people getting stunned and charred by bombs going off in their hands (while birds chirp on the soundtrack) and a little person being propelled across a warehouse by the force of a punch, Jingle All the Way is shot like a live-action cartoon. (I do wonder--I hope rhetorically--if the same scene would still be funny to director Brian Levant if you were to substitute a child for the freak. Or a woman, or a black guy, or an Asian--you see where I'm going here.) The entire conclusion of the picture is like a drill to the temple, with Howie somehow ending up the Turboman in a Christmas parade, equipped of course with a full arsenal of Condorman kitsch accessories the better with which to further abuse the blue-collar African-American joke-butt who has a band of police chasing him, guns drawn and batons at the ready. Ho ho ho.
All this without delving into Phil Hartman's role as an unctuous next-door neighbour, a live reindeer that is socked before Arnold courts him, or some unpleasant bits that seem to suggest that fat kids are spoiled assholes and little blonde kids are angels. The capper, though, is a quiet scene in a café where Myron and Howie compare notes and discover that the secret to adult happiness and success lies entirely in the amount of useless shit our parents buy for us when we whine enough. I wouldn't argue that, except the film takes the stance that the more you were indulged, the better you turn out. Jingle All the Way is insidious entertainment--the cynical would say that it's better read as a documentary--arriving on DVD just in time for the holidays. That oughtta shut the little fuckers up.
Warner's DVD presentation of Christmas in Connecticut looks suspiciously like an early-Nineties TNT holiday flick transferred to disc without any sort of remastering--I don't know what else to say about it. The source print is clean and, er, it doesn't always resemble an episode of "Knot's Landing". A DD 2.0 stereo track spreads the audio evenly across the front channels like butter on a hot biscuit. Two trailers for the film itself comprise the special features, a little bit of kindness to soften the Terminator's full-frontal assault on that most sacred of all our optioned pagan rituals.
Fox treats Jingle All the Way to a flipper DVD with 1.33:1 pan-and-scan and 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced presentations on opposite sides of the platter. Though both transfers are bright, the depth-of-field in the widescreen version is markedly better. In faith, though, I suspect that idiot-Levant envisioned a TV sale in the future for his glorious stillbirth and framed his action conveniently within 4x3 confines. Colours are good and the anamorphic transfer certainly trumps the original non-enhanced release of this title, which was pulled and held up because of an extended copyright battle with a disgruntled screenwriter. Though the default sound is Dolby Surround, a DD 5.1 track can be accessed through the menu; neither sets the house on fire, as it were, with the discrete audio spread a little thin and across the front channels besides. While the final chaos is predictably loud, I did notice an instance or two where things that should be loud were a little muted and elements that should be muted (crowd murmur) were perversely loud. Sloppy. Can't blame them, either. A cropped theatrical trailer and pathetic cast bios round out the anaemic package. Originally published: November 8, 2004.