The re-release of "The Wizard of Oz" in theaters, just in time for the holidays, is bad news for all the new films aimed at younger audiences. Victor Fleming's 1939 classic boasts great performances, a compelling story and not an ounce of patronization toward its audience.
Too bad none of those qualities made it into "I'll Be Home For Christmas," a lame-brained wannabe comic vehicle for Jonathan Taylor Thomas, the teen-age co-star of television's popular "Home Improvement" sitcom. It's sort of a kid-size, unfunny variation on "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," the underrated 1987 home-for-Thanksgiving gem starring Steve Martin and the late John Candy. Rent that, and skip this.
Taylor, as annoyingly unctuous a screen actor as any you'll see this year, is Jake, an obnoxious, prankster-pulling student at a ritzy private college near Los Angeles. (Then again, have you ever seen a college with lockers in the hallways?) He whiles away his days engaging in cutesy dialogue with his supermodel-in-training girlfriend Allie (Jessica Biel of television's "Seventh Heaven") and cooking up schemes to help dim students cheat on exams.
Jake's plans for the Yuletide break include a romantic getaway with Allie to the oceanside resort of Cabo San Lucas. She instead opts for Christmas back east with her parents in Westchester County near New York. After being promised the gift of his dad's red Porsche, her boyfriend reluctantly decides to fly back with her to their hometown to visit his sad-sack father (Gary Cole of the two "Brady Bunch" movies), cheery stepmom (Eve Gordon) and bratty little sister. Junior, it seems, hasn't been home for the holidays since his mom's death several years earlier.
Plan B is scotched, too, when the smug but stupid Eddie (Adam Lavorgna of "Brooklyn Bridge") and three of his football-playing pals, angered that Jake failed to come through on a final-exam scam, kidnap their academic benefactor. He winds up dressed in a Santa Claus suit, face down in the middle of the California desert.
"I'll Be Home For Christmas" then shifts from mediocrity to pure road-movie predictability, as Jake makes a long exhausting effort to return home by Christmas Eve. He's simultaneously attempting to catch up with Eddie, required by the plot to offer a cross-country ride to Allie. Why does she accept a ride when she could easily phone home for a plane ticket? Only the screenwriters know.
Along the way, Jake encounters a variety of situations intended to generate laughs. He hitches a ride with four senior-citizen women bound for a Tom Jones show in Las Vegas, during a segment about as funny as false teeth and vomit, both of which are utilized. He later gets a lift from bumbling trucker Nolan (Andrew Lauer of "Caroline in the City"), and both of them are forced to give away stolen appliances to children in a hospital.
Our hero also manages to help a policeman (Sean O'Bryan) reunite with his estranged wife (Lesley Boone), hijack a bus to an alpine village in Iowa, enter and win a 5K Santa marathon featuring every variety of Kris Kringle (the film's sole amusing sequence) and commandeer a horse-driven sleigh all over picturesque Larchmont, N.Y.
Those who loved such holiday-themed trifles as "The Santa Clause" and "Santa Claus: The Movie" may just go for "I'll Be Home For Christmas." Everyone else should cross it off their wish lists.
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