It took me awhile to figure out whether Jonathan Taylor Thomas was playing a high school or college student in this 1998 film. Still saddled with the smartass swagger of Home Improvement’s middle child Randy Taylor, JTT could have passed for an eager sophomore hoping to impress a girl with his new driver’s license and his dad’s 1986 Ford Taurus. Instead, he plays a coed hoping to impress a girl with his teen bop charm and his dad’s 1957 Porsche. It doesn’t work out too well, nor does much else in this Christmas road trip movie.
The teen heartthrob shows his fanbase (of which I was a proud member) his limits because while he might have passed for a lovable if slightly roguish kid, he has a harder time pulling off the big man on campus look. Jake is supposed to be something of a hot shot; he cheats for the football team, struts his way through campus parties, and dates Jessica Biel, but it still sounds like his voice hasn’t fully broken. I might believe that he’s figured out how to rig the election for the homecoming court, but I have a harder time believing he isn’t getting shoved into college lockers along with his diminutive friend.
I guess JTT-as-Jake deserves a break though since he isn’t on great terms with his dad, who quickly remarried after the death of his mom. He’d rather spend the Christmas holidays in Cabo San Lucas with his girlfriend Allie (Biel) and only decides to make the cross country trip back home to New York after dad throws in the Porsche as a peace offering. A glitch in the cheating ring scuppers his plans, however, and results in him being dumped in the middle of the desert with nothing but a Santa costume glued to his body. Jake’s bad day gets worse when he realizes Allie, who was already upset that he ignored her wish to go home for the holidays, hitches a ride with his rival, Eddie (Adam LaVorgna).
The madcap race back to New York – Jake must be home before 6:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve – turns out to be anything but that. More like a broken merry-go-round at the shopping mall, Jake gets help from various characters of little importance who barely muster enough energy to keep the story moving. They are eccentric and often dim folk, because I guess that’s the kind of people the filmmakers think populate the middle of the country. Thanks to his selfishness, he inadvertently shows them the value of home and family, which leads to some soul searching of his own.
This isn’t the kind of movie that ever overcomes its gimmicky premise though and even as it stretches towards a happy holiday ending, you get the feeling that you’ve been cheated of the journey. Even if I was still a teen hopelessly enamored with Thomas, I’d find it hard to sympathize with Jake or to even care. Biel is also left hanging with a thankless girlfriend role. I’ve seen her in more talk show interviews than in screen roles, but if she has any acting talent, she has little chance to display it here.
Prod: Robin French, Justis Greene, David Hoberman, Tracey Trench
Dir: Arlene Sanford
Writer: Michael Allin, Tom Nursall, Harris Goldberg
Cast: Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jessica Biel, Adam LaVorgna, Gary Cole, Eve Gordon, Lauren Maltby, Andrew Lauer, Sean O’Bryan, Leslie Boone
Time: 86 min
Country: United States