REVIEW: I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1998)
Produced by: Robin French, Justis Greene, David Hoberman, Tracey Trench
Written by: Michael Allin, Tom Nursall, Harris Goldberg
Edited by: Anita Brandt-Burgoyne
Cinematography by: Hiro Narita
Music by: John Debney
Starring: Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jessica Biel, Adam LaVorgna, Gary Cole, Eve Gordon, Lauren Maltby, Andrew Lauer, Sean O’Bryan, Lesley Boone
Inspired by the song by Bing Crosby
Remember how big Jonathan Taylor Thomas was? Thanks to his role in the TV show Home Improvement as the wisecracking middle child Randy, “JTT” as he was popularly known, even managed to snag himself a role in one of Disney’s most enduring and popular films from the 90s (and, indeed, probably of all time), The Lion King. Many of the girls I knew loved him, as did apparently all the rest of the world. Luckily, unlike a lot of the childstars we see, Thomas at least had knack for comedic timing and managed to actually earn his right to being the funny one on the TV series that made him popular. At the end of the 20th century, however (Doesn’t that sound so apocalyptic still?), JTT left Home Improvement and began his journey into not just academics, but also to that corner of fame where people suddenly remembered you existed and ask aloud, “Where is he now?”
I’ll Be Home for Christmas was, I feel, probably the last film that attempted to really bank on the soon-to-be fading star power of the actor, featuring him in yet another quick-wit role as Jake Wilkinson, a college student who is very literally making an attempt to go out of his way to not see his family on Christmas after his dad remarried so soon after his mother’s untimely and (apparently) still painful death. Thomas stars opposite fellow teenage heartthrob Jessica Biel, who plays Jake’s girlfriend Allie, who takes issue with his reluctance to head back to their hometown of Idyllic, New York together for a traditional, proverbial White Christmas (cue Bing Crosby).
It’s only when Jake is finally bribed by his father (Gary Cole in yet another role that underutilizes him) with the promise of a shiny new Porsche if he can get there by 6PM Christmas Eve. But his rival in romance Eddie along with his somehow douchier entourage jump Jake and toss him out in the middle of the California desert with nothing but a Santa Claus outfit (complete with beard) glued to his body and no means of getting home on time. Eddie then takes off with an irate but ignorant Allie, who thinks she’s been stood up, and Jake’s winter break becomes a hectic race to make it back home in time to not only the car (and family) that awaits him, but also save his relationship with Allie.
If you couldn’t guess from the elaborate set up, this is basically an excuse to have Jake wind up in several wacky situations that not only help people with their troubles, but also learn the true meaning of Christmas. It’s basically a PG-rated, Christmas-themed, TV movie-grade knock off of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and it’s just about as entertaining and heartwarming as that premise makes it sound – i.e., not very.
Jake remains kind of unrepentant and fairly unpleasant throughout most of the film, someone who, despite all the development he supposedly has to go through, never really has to apologize or suffer for all his lies and selfishness. We hear he’s a hopeless romantic, and yet all evidence points to him having just a silver tongue. It doesn’t help that the film basically asks us to never question whether the ends justify the means – I mean, it’s nice that at some point some cute kids at a hospital get some unexpected, nice gifts, but how he gets there, why he was motivated to do it, and where the gifts are sourced from aren’t exactly of concern to the filmmakers.
All that matters, I assume, is whether Jake is able to get from point A to point B, so long as ignorant people think they’re being helped and as long as Jake is able to work the situation out to his own benefit, as well. This ultimately has the effect of making his one big, true gesture of generosity feel inconsequential in the grander scheme of things, especially since Jake continues to take advantage of people and situations after the fact, and his motivations remain pretty much all about himself, when you really think about it. I’m not even certain I remember him ever saying, “I’m sorry” to anyone, at least not without an ulterior motive.
Jonathan Taylor Thomas isn’t exactly bad in the role, however, as it’s really just the material that fails him. It’s as if the filmmakers saw his “wisecracking but lovable” role on Home Improvement and figured that “wiseass sarcastic jerkface” was somehow acceptably similar. This also results in the movie never really feeling like the stakes are very high, ‘cause, really, even if Eddie’s a bit more of a douche than Jake is, you’d never really want to be around either one of them in real life, and the script isn’t even funny enough to make the jerkface rise above that level into likability. Nobody is ever going to question whether he’s going to get the girl in the end, but was any one even really fooled into caring about the whole car thing, either? Or were you just coming along for the ride, only to find yourself bored to death?
This is an inoffensive movie, probably more suited for one of those ABC Family or Hallmark productions you see pop up everytime this time of year, and you could certainly do a lot worse than watch this dull cashgrab – at least from a merely technical standpoint. But, really, why would you want to, unless it was to relive the glory days of your youth when JTT was a nickname that still carried some heartthrob cred and that everyone knew the name it stood for and when Jessica Biel was still the very attractive older sister from 7th Heaven and not one of the most incredibly bland actresses still somehow landing major roles in Hollywood films? That was pretty much my main motivation for choosing to watch this when I saw it pop up on Netflix streaming recently. “Hey, it’s that movie that many of the girls I knew really liked back in middle school. Yeah, that’ll be an easy review to write if I’m feeling too tired to write a more thoughtful one…”
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 1 / 5