John Hughes: A family comedy without the family
Home Alone is directed by Chris Columbus, written by John Hughes, and stars Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, John Heard, Catherine O'Hara, and John Candy. When adjusted for inflation, it is the highest grossing Christmas movie of all time at the North American box office.
One of the most difficult things to do when it comes to film criticism and/or analysis is to give a fair and honest assessment of a movie that you have some specific bias towards, particularly one that you consider to be a staple of your childhood film nostalgia. Childhood nostalgia is one of the most powerful forces that can drive someone to love a certain film, because almost nothing can beat that wave of nostalgic cheer that runs through you when you watch bits and pieces of a movie that you loved so so much as a naive young child and think back as to how much you laughed, cried, or maybe both. For myself, this was none more true than with 1990's Home Alone. I lost count as to how many times I popped in that Home Alone DVD, watching it with giddy excitement every time and never ceasing to laugh at the film's slapstick comedy. Until doing research on the film some years later, I had no idea that the film raked in a monster profit during its initial theatrical run, staying in theaters well past the Christmas season and going on to become the third highest grossing film of all time worldwide, behind only Star Wars and E.T.. Nowadays, I can't possibly imagine a live-action family comedy going to score a profit that only the likes of superhero films and heavily marketed Disney films enjoy. Would Home Alone have been a massive commercial success had it been released in, say, 2010 as opposed to 1990? Probably not, I'd say.
Macaulay Culkin was easily the most famous American child actor of the 1990's; he was the kid that every other kid wanted to be, because Culkin got to enjoy luxuries that other kids could only dream of. Culkin worked with John Hughes before during the 1989 film Uncle Buck, and because of his experience with the child actor, Hughes suggested to director Chris Columbus to cast Culkin as the main role in Home Alone. In retrospect, there was really no one else who could've shined in the role the way Culkin did. More on that later.
Home Alone centers on 8-year old Kevin McCallister (Culkin), the youngest son of Peter (John Heard) and Kate (Catherine O'Hara) McCallister. The McCallister family is getting ready to head off and spend the holidays in Paris, having gathered at Peter and Kate's house. Kevin is being mocked by all of his cousins and siblings, and he finally snaps when his older brother, Buzz (Devin Ratray), presumably ate all of the cheese pizza that was ordered for the family's pizza dinner. A fight with Buzz gets Kevin sent up to the third floor as punishment, where Kevin tells his mother that he never wants to see his family ever again. That night, a heavy wind storm knocks out some power lines, causing a short power outage and the family alarm clocks being reset. As a result, the entire family oversleeps, and the ensuing pandemonium leads to Kevin being left behind. Kevin wakes up to find his entire family gone, and, believing his wish that his family would disappear came true, is overwhelmed with joy. But Kevin isn't able to enjoy his new freedom for very long; two burglars, Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), who are going by the name the "Wet Bandits", are breaking into houses along the McCallister's neighborhood block, and they have their eyes set on the McCallister home. Kevin isn't going to run and hide, however. He decides that he's going to give the burglars a warm holiday welcome by rigging his house with a series of booby traps and turn his home into a house of horrors for Harry and Marv.
Enjoying Home Alone as a child mostly consists of finding amusement in the antics of Culkin as Kevin McCallister, as well as the slapstick that comes with Harry and Marv getting beat up by Kevin's various traps. When it comes to enjoying Home Alone as an adult, it's for several different reasons that are only clear when you see the film through a more critical eye, although the reasons for enjoying it as a child still remain. Of course, if you were never one to buy into the film's slapstick comedy and Christmas charm as a child, chances are your stance won't change one bit as an adult. Children's films are a complicated business, because more often than not, a children's film places boundaries on a child's imagination and curiosity, settling for some of the lowest forms of humor imaginable since many screenwriters seem to believe that kids are stupid, and therefore, they will only laugh at stupid humor. Home Alone, which is more of a family film than a pure children's film, instead goes for telling us that kids are naive and normally say things that they don't really mean, and this is where I think Home Alone finds its appeal for children and their parents. It's a common thing for children on some days to feel like they hate their parents and their family, and this feeling is what Home Alone goes all in for. Home Alone asks, okay, what would happen if a child actually does have their family disappear? How long until the kid starts to realize that deep down they really do love their family and wish for their family to come back? As Kevin McCallister learns, sometimes the best way to appreciate what you have in life is to see what life is like without it.
- One reason that Home Alone excels with what it wants to do is the strength of many of its performances. Macaulay Culkin has the most demanding role in the entire film, being required to show a wide range of emotions and yet still be a convincingly cute and clever 8 year old boy. Culkin is more than up to the challenge, delivering one of the best, if not the best, child actor performance of the 1990's. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are also perfectly casted as the Wet Bandits (named as so because their calling card is that they leave the water running in every house they rob). Playing Harry was quite a departure for Joe Pesci, who starred as the hot-headed Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas earlier the same year, and it doesn't take much to see that something like Goodfellas is the polar opposite of Home Alone. While trying to break into Kevin's house, Harry constantly sounds as if he's swearing under his breath, even going so far as to threaten to snap off Kevin's nut-sack and boil it in motor oil. Even with PG limits, Pesci is effectively able to give Harry a hot-tempered but always funny persona. Meanwhile, Daniel Stern is brilliant at selling the fact that Marv is a moronic criminal who is almost impossible to take seriously. The ongoing banter between Harry and Marv never gets old, and it makes me wonder how Harry and Marv first met and what made them want to work together. The film's most underrated performance goes to Catherine O'Hara as Kate McCallister. When she realizes that they forgot about Kevin, her desperation to get back home increases by the minute, and upon finding herself in an airport in Scranton, Pennsylvania, she runs into Gus Polinski (John Candy), who offers to give her a ride back to Chicago where the McCallisters live. O'Hara nails it as Kevin's mother, despite having limited screen time once the plots kicks into high gear.
- There are plenty of laughs to be had in Home Alone, and not just in watching Harry and Marv get ripped to shreds by the booby traps. Early on, Kevin declares that when he grows up and gets married, he's living alone (not sure how a happily married person can live alone, but you get why it's funny). There's also a moment in which Harry asks Marv a question, and Marv pauses for a few seconds until he says, "That's a good idea." Comedic moments like these rely on the idiocy or naivety of the characters, and it's something that I think you don't fully realize unless you watch the movie with an adult mind frame.
- Of course it must be mentioned that Home Alone defies logic and common sense like you wouldn't believe. No 8 year old child could possibly have the smarts and capabilities that Kevin has, particularly in how he sets up the booby traps and executes them. The only way Kevin could concoct such a scheme for combating the burglars is with the assistance of....oh, I don't know, a stunt crew and a writer who decides what kind of traps make sense in the McCallister home. Kevin is lucky enough to live inside a massive home that just happens to hold all of the resources he needs to turn his home into hell's fun house. As for Harry and Marv, I'm surprised that the two continuously take hard fall after hard fall and not show any signs of broken bones or structural damage. The pain that the two endure is something out of a Saw film. The worst moment is when Kevin uses Buzz's escaped tarantula to temporarily get away from Marv after Harry takes a fall and is temporarily immobilized. The tarantula starts crawling on Harry, and Marv tries to kill the tarantula with a crowbar. Instead of killing the tarantula, Marv gives Harry a nasty shot to the chest area, which, in reality, would probably result in something like a punctured lung.
So having watched Home Alone again for the first time in I don't know how many years, it's clear to me as to what would prevent anyone from enjoying the film in any way. The slapstick parts of the comedy are completely absurd, and the ways in which Kevin foils the burglars' plans are totally out of the realm of possibilities for an 8 year old child. Any 8 year old child would likely head over to a neighbor's house and try to use the phone (the main reason why the McCallisters can't call directly home is because the phones aren't working), but Kevin, still reasonably angry about his family ridiculing and punishing him, instead enjoys being the man of the house. The desire to be back with his family eventually comes to Kevin, as he comes to understand just how much his family means to him.
Home Alone has experienced plenty of analysis and critiques over the years as it continues to attempt to establish itself as a Christmas classic. Anything possibly new that I can add is this: Home Alone, in a comedic but charming fashion, addresses the importance of family, doing so largely through the eyes of a child who is put into a situation where the absence of his family will take effect sooner or later. Any child angry at their parents and/or family would find short-term satisfaction if their family magically disappeared. But in the long-run, the absence of family is something that a parent or child cannot ignore forever. And that, my friends, is why Home Alone is such a memorable and endearing holiday gift for both children and adults alike.
Recommend? Yes. It's a film always worth watching around Christmas time.
Critical Grade: B+
Personal Grade: A+ (because I have big-time childhood nostalgia for this film, and I know I will never get tired of it)
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