I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS Starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas Directed by Arlene Sanford Walt Disney Pictures

Let me be frank. Anyone who has the hots for Jonathan Taylor Thomas will love I'll Be Home For Christmas, as will anyone between the ages of, say, five and 13. Everyone else, however, need not apply.

Thomas (aka J.T.T.), better known as Randy on the hit sitcom "Home Improvement," plays Jake Wilkinson, a collegiate Scrooge who divides his time between wooing his girlfriend Allie (Jessica Biel) and running a fake ID service. Because he would rather stay in California than go home to New York for the holidays, our hero's father (Gary Cole) promises him a Porsche (!) if he makes it home by 6 p.m. on Christmas Day. This is a prospect Jake finds too tempting to pass up. Jake's business, however, botches one too many assignments, and some unhappy customers toss him into the desert after supergluing a Santa suit to his body (no, this doesn't make more sense when you see it). Without the money for a bus ticket, Jake has to rely on his smooth-talking savvy to mooch enough rides to get him across the country in two days. In the meantime, he must cook up a way to win back his disgruntled girlfriend who gives up on Jake's selfish ways and takes off with Eddie (Adam LaVorgna), class smoothie (grease and all) and Jake's nemesis.

Director Arlene Sanford has attempted to beef up the plot with a bunch of tried-and-true signs of a broken family--tension between Jake and his stepmother, heated sibling rivalry between Jake and his kid sister, etc., etc. No prizes for guessing if he makes peace with his family, patches things up with his girlfriend, or makes it home for Christmas. No surprise, the story line is absolutely predictable: When Jake enters a Santa race for a $1,000 prize in one town, the big question is not if he'll win, but how long it'll take for the movie to get there.

For J.T.T., this role barely differs from his normal schtick on "Home Improvement" it might as well be another hour of "TGI Friday" on ABC. Part of the problem is that he's a teen trying to act 21-he simply looks too young to be playing a college student. This stretches the believability of the story from the beginning, when the caption "Palisades College" flashes onto the screen as we see Jake and his freshfaced sidekick, Ian, walking past a row of lockers.

Nevertheless, it's clear why Sanford squished J.T.T. into the role anyway. Plot aside, the movie is essentially a Jonathan Taylor Thomas peep show riding on Thomas' teen idol/pinup boy status. The film provides us with plenty of closeups of J.T.T.'s tanned face and blue eyes, but I'll Be Home for Christmas clearly shows that you can't judge a book by its cover; Thomas never rises above the "I am trying to be funny," hamming-it-up style he perfected week after week on "Home Improvement."


For that matter, neither does the rest of the cast, although it can't be said that they have lines that lend themselves to interpretation. At one point, Allie tries desperately to convince Eddie that Jake is a "sensitive" guy--she remembers the time he tried to cheer her up by complimenting her hands (a line ripped off from e.e. cummings, no less.) The one character in the entire movie who can be called really humorous is the illegal electronics peddler who accidentally hits Jake with his van (sadly, the movie doesn't end) and remorsefully offers to drive the kid east. Then again, maybe that's just because Andy Lauer fills the role with the same innocent humor he brings to Caroline in the City as an intellectual toddler in a 30-year-old's body.

This isn't to say that the movie doesn't have its humorous moments. In one scene, Jake helps a police officer get his estranged girlfriend back by composing a song "Oh Marjorie," sung to the tune of "Oh Christmas tree." The sight of the officer bleating out the song in a steak joint as livestock baa in the background is silly (and desperate) enough to be mildly amusing. Still, it's the sort of scene that you know has been done before--a feeling we seem to get often; a class nerd gets shoved into a locker, carollers disperse before an advancing runaway sleigh, the mistletoe scene, etc. It's a patchwork of cliched moments from other movies or sitcoms--all stapled together into a disjointed Christmas special with absolutely no flow.

But maybe it would have been too much to expect anything more from a Christmas special--one put out by Disney at that. After all, this is a wholesome story extolling good family values and dripping with Christmas spirit to the point where you're squirming in your seat. It's overcooked--almost like the way Barney emphasizes everything a little too much so that the kids will get it. Maybe the kids won't notice the film's problems anyway. And even if they do, does it matter? It's, like, totally Johnny. Totally tacky. Totally Disney. Merry Christmas, kids.