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by: James Berardinelli

I'll Be Home for Christmas represents the ultimate insult to a film-goer: a made-for-TV movie that has been dumped into theaters to rake in a few extra dollars before it slips onto video shelves, then debuts next year on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney. The Magic Kingdom clearly isn't expecting I'll Be Home for Christmas to have any box-office staying power (otherwise they wouldn't open it so close to A Bug's Life), but a theatrical release lends it an unfortunate air of legitimacy. In fact, the movie is so bad that it doesn't deserve to be seen on television, let alone in a multiplex. Director Arlene Sanford (A Very Brady Sequel) helps to reinforce a sad truth: Disney's live-action division is creatively bankrupt.

The key attraction is teen idol Jonathan Taylor Thomas, who, as Jake Wilkinson, wisecracks his way through I'll Be Home for Christmas, doing his best to imitate Christian Slater (not a laudable goal, especially considering that Slater is a Jack Nicholson wannabe). While Thomas evidences a spark of charisma, his lifeless co-stars do their best to quench any flame that momentarily sputters to life. At least he has his smirk to fall back on. Jessica Biel (last seen as one of the daughters in Ulee's Gold) is Allie, the generic good, pure girlfriend. Adam Lavorgna is Eddie, the consistently irritating, self-absorbed romantic rival. And Gary Cole, who played Mike Brady in two big screen Brady Bunch spoofs, tackles the same kind of role here, albeit without a hint of parody. He's the '90s version of Father Knows Best, and belongs in Pleasantville.

Mr. Wilkinson wants his family together for Christmas, and he'll stop at nothing to get his way. The biggest obstacle is his 18-year old son, Jake, who is attending Pallisades College, all the way across the country. Jake plans to ditch the family get-together, favoring a late December trip to a vacation spot instead of a ride home to picturesque Larchmont, New York. Then his father makes an amazing promise: if Jake can be home in time for the 6 pm family Christmas Eve dinner, he will get the keys to his dad's cherry red 1957 Porsche. It's an offer Jake can't refuse, so, surviving a series of bizarre misadventures that includes a car ride with elderly Tom Jones fans, a stop at a children's hospital, an organ donor scam, and a plane trip in a dog cage, he makes his way East, hoping to clear up a misunderstanding with Allie and claim his car. In a way, this is like a very poor man's Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. In fact, if you take all the weakest elements of the John Candy/Steve Martin comedy, strip away most of what works (including the actors), and add Thomas, you'll understand why I'll Be Home for Christmas is a failure.

The first question that comes to mind when watching this film is: Why would anyone other than a 14 year-old girl with a certified Jonathan Taylor Thomas fan club membership want to spend 85 minutes with this lead character? Jake is egoistic, obnoxious, and thoroughly dislikable. In most movies, he's the guy we're waiting to see get his comeuppance. Admittedly, he undergoes a poorly-motivated, last act transformation from bad boy to local saint, but that's hardly enough to redeem four reels' worth of irritation. Worse still, he's thrown into a series of situations that stretch the bounds of credibility well beyond the breaking point. Consider, for example, how he gets into the predicament he spends most of the movie trying to get out of. A couple of guys knock him out, dress him up in a Santa suit, then strand him in the desert. Granted, fantasy/comedies of this sort generally don't stick close to the real world, but the absurdities present in I'll Be Home for Christmas are beyond laughable. The twists and turns make the plots of most TV sit-coms seem true-to-life.

If I'll Be Home for Christmas has any hope


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