Jonathan Taylor Thomas makes for a grating protagonist in the 1998 Christmas comedy I’ll Be Home for Christmas. The film is directed by Arlene Sanford from a screenplay by Michael Allin, Tom Nursall and Harris Goldberg. It has the usual Walt Disney Pictures trappings of the era, including a wonky sense of what’s cool.
I’ll Be Home for Christmas is like a lot of holiday movies in which almost everything goes right. This one involves a version of the smarmy Zack Morris of Saved by the Bell fame and the audience is somehow expected to cheer for him, even when the opportunity arises to have him hit by a car or eaten by vultures or generally lost in the middle of nowhere.
Thomas is Jake Wilkinson, a smug rich kid going to college in California. He runs a lot of scams on campus, ala the aforementioned Morris, and even has a trusty sidekick who does his bidding. Jake also has a girlfriend named Allie (Jessica Biel). His dad (Gary Cole) sends him tickets back home for Christmas, but scummy Jake trades them in for two tickets to Cabo San Lucas to chill with his lady.
Unfortunately for the spoiled brat, Allie wants to have Christmas at home with her family. He relents and says he’ll drive her because she’s also from where he’s from. But something goes awry and Eddie (Adam LaVorgna) dumps Jake in the desert. Eddie then sweeps in and drives Allie home, with Jake chasing behind.
Lest the audience have to contend with a semi-altruistic Jake, his prime motivator for getting home for Christmas is that his dad has promised him the Porsche. This comes after his father is made aware of the whole ticket-trading mess, which illustrates who wears the pants in the Wilkinson family. To make matters worse, a scene finds Jake’s little sister (Lauren Maltby) polishing said Porsche.
Somewhere along the line, Jake is supposed to have an epiphany and come to terms with how egotistical he is. But caring about that moment is difficult given how infuriating the kid is and just how crappy his attitude is whenever someone stoops to help him.
Any subsequent transformation is only “earned” on account of twinkling, manipulative Christmas music and a stupid Santa race that finds Jake rolling his eyes just before he does the right thing. There are, of course, people like Jake all over the place and the world has no shortage of spoiled clowns who’ve somehow earned their way into the public trust.
But I’ll Be Home for Christmas is so intent on buffing the edges of Jake’s behaviour that it tries to pass his wake of destruction off as mere charm. As he lies, cheats, steals, bribes, and scams his way across the country, the Christmas music never lets up and the sustained sweetness of the whole thing slingshots around like the aftertaste of a particularly foul hunk of fruitcake.
If I’ll Be Home for Christmas had the initiative to back up Jake’s smart-aleck sociopathy without dunking it in gallons of false merriment, this could’ve been a cheeky if underwhelming road movie. But as it is, Sanford’s picture is worse than a lump of coal on Christmas morning. Much, much worse.