I'll Be Home for Christmas asks the impossible of us. It actually begs sympathy for its central character Jake (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), an utterly spoiled, smugly conniving, cheating college student on a mission. He has to get from his school in California to Christmas dinner at his family's in Larchmont in order for Daddy (Gary Cole) to bestow a vintage Porsche on his deserving butt. Never mind that Jake is the most obnoxiously self-satisfied little twit since Ferris Bueller. He's played by Thomas, the hope and torment of many a subteen heart and, to up the 'adorable' quotient, wears a Santa Claus suit throughout (punishment by some mean ole frat jocks). His desperate cross-country trek is, of course, loaded with wacky high-jinks and kooky characters. There's a carload of biddies on their way to see Tom Jones in Vegas, a dim-witted truck driver (Andrew Lauer), a lovelorn cop (Sean O'Bryan) and, to top off the merriment, a marathon race involving some 150 other Santas. And, of course, along the way, Jake acquires humanity and the true meaning of Christmas. You watch in a kind of glazed horror.

According to producer Tracey Trench, 'The reason I wanted to do this film was, first of all, for the title. 'I'll Be Home for Christmas' is the only song that makes me cry whenever I hear it, especially at Christmas time.' Smarmy quote, smarmy film: A winsome little Mexican boy who sits on Jake's lap and yammers about wanting to be reunited with his family is the main inspiration for his big change of heart Arlene Sanford, responsible for the second and decidedly lesser Brady Bunch movie, directs at a hammering, whiz-bang pace that resembles TV-sitcom behavior without ever once looking like anything recognizably human. Her lead actor is, of course, fully up to this, with his raspy, smart-ass delivery and eternal bratty snideness. A few years ago, to the alarm of my editor, I remarked on Thomas' eerily disconcerting resemblance to character actress Kathleen Freeman. Freeman actually pops up as one of those Tom Jones ladies, but there is no chance here for doppelganger fun as, unfortunately, Thomas' bone structure has set in, now rendering him a pubescent version of Harrison Ford. There's a romantic sidebar involving his ridiculously adoring girlfriend Allie (Jessica Biel), who is also making an eastbound odyssey in the company of hated rival, sleazy Eddie (Adam LaVorgna). (Let's see, if Jake's actions are beneath contempt, then Eddie is the villain of the piece because, well...he's brunette!) Biel is physically not the best casting for Thomas (she's a bit mature and her head is about twice as large as his), but she has one agreeably daffy moment, mindlessly singing along to Acqua's insidiously catchy 'Dr. Jones.' (Of course, a large part of the audience may just want to slam her one here.) LaVorgna is attractive and does thick lout adeptly, especially when he tells her, 'Wow, you're not so cute in the morning. I'm kinda glad nothing happened.'

--David Noh