Synopsis: A Family Comedy Without The Family
When Kevin’s family left for vacation, they forgot one minor detail: Kevin!
Eight-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) has become the man of the house, overnight! Accidentally left behind when his family rushes off on a Christmas vacation, Kevin gets busy decorating the house for the holidays. But he’s not decking the halls with tinsel and holly. Two bumbling burglars are trying to break in, and Kevin’s rigging a bewildering battery of booby traps to welcome them!
Written and produced by John Hughes (“101 Dalmatians”), this madcap slapstick adventure features an all-star supporting cast including Catherine O’Hara and John Heard as Kevin’s parents, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as the burglars, and John Candy (“Planes, Trains and Automobiles”) as the “Polka King of the Midwest.”
Home Alone 7.75
eyelights: John Hughes’ clever script. Christopher Columbus’ direction. John Williams’ score.
eyesores: Macaulay Culkin’s performance.
“This house is so full of people it makes me sick. When I grow up and get married, I’m living alone. Did you hear me? I’m living alone! I’m living alone!”
‘Home Alone’ is the story of an eight-year-old boy who is mistakenly left behind during the holidays while his whole family leave for a planned trip to Paris. With no one to tell him what to do, he learns to fend for himself, faces his fears and has tons of fun – that is, before his house is staked out by a couple of persistent burglars.
Released on November 16, “Home Alone’ was a MONSTER hit in 1990, remaining number one at the box office for twelve consecutive weeks and staying in the top ten until well past the 1991 Easter weekend. By the end of its international run, it ended up grossing close to 500 million dollars – and that’s on 1990 ticket prices!!!
Written and produced by John Hughes (of ‘The Breakfast Club‘ and ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ fame!) and directed by Chris Columbus (‘Mrs. Doubtfire’, ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’), it is mostly remembered for Macaulay Culkin, who plays the title’s protagonist, Kevin. For good or bad, he has an unforgettable presence in the picture.
Honestly, I tackled the film with some aversion. I remembered enjoying it back in the day, but also recall my loathing of Culkin. I also seem to remember liking the sequel more, even though it’s pretty much the same story, but transposed in a new setting. But, after ‘A Christmas Story‘ and ‘Millions‘, it only seemed natural to give it a chance.
I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed it. While there’s not much to the plot, I was impressed with the way that Hughes set-up the whole contrivance, making it plausible – barely, but it’s a situation that would otherwise not be credible at all. Hughes set all the pieces in place just right and, in an extreme situation, could conceivably happen.
He also did a good job of setting up the key characters and even gave us enough meat to make it through the whole movie – even though it’s a story about a kid who’s alone at home. Between the side-stories of his mom trying to make her way back to Paris, the burglars trying to break into the place, and his own shenanigans, we are kept interested and entertained.
I also have to give Hughes credit for not going too schmaltzy or slap-sticky. Kid movies are frequently both, and this one steers clear of overdone sentiment and keeps the physical comedy to a minimum. In many ways, it reminds me of ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ for its general tone and humour – which might explain why Hughes didn’t direct it himself.
He got a good substitute in Chris Columbus, who really did a decent job of setting up each moment so that they work. Even though Hughes had mapped it out, an unsteady hand could have totally screwed it up. But he hit every beat perfectly – even the physical comedy at the tail end of the picture is done so masterfully that it doesn’t hurt anyone but the antagonists.
And that’s saying something. Physical comedy is difficult because not all actors can perform it, and not all directors can keep it under control. Columbus was able to prevent his actors, in particular the tempestuous Joe Pesci, from overplaying it and also kept the scenes this side of cartoony – there was restraint where other directors would have let loose.
Oh, sure, it’s all BS, because there’s no way that an 8-year-old child would have been able to invent all those booby traps, set-up them so well, and do it the amount of time that he had. There’s no way this challenged kid could have turned into MacGyver overnight. And yet, his creations were inspired enough that you want to believe it.
That is, if you can get past Macaulay Culkin as Kevin.
Look, I know that Culkin has been knocked about incessantly for two decades and I hate to pile on, but he really is pretty awful in here. Watching ‘Home Alone’ made me wonder how he got the gig. Whereas his Kevin affects a similar persona as Ferris Bueller, Culkin has none of the talent and subtlety of Matthew Broderick. He botches it.
I know that he was just a kid, but there are good child actors out there – and who can do comedy well, too. Culkin is simply atrocious, going through the motions, affecting the look but feeling almost none of it. Seeing his face grimace into a smile, or his eyes pop out to emulate surprise, or watching him transition abruptly from sad to happy, was getting sawdust blown into my eyes.
Bizarrely enough, it made me think of women who have had too much plastic surgery. You know, the ones whose faces are so tight that you can’t help but worry that they will tear or burst apart when they try to smile. Culkin’s mouth had that pinched, stretched quality that screams of artificiality. He wasn’t acting: he was posing. Badly.
Although he’s by far the worst of the lot, he’s not all bad and he is surrounded by a really solid cast. I was surprised by how much self-control Pesci had and how credible Daniel Stern was as his side-kick; they delivered excellent comedic performances. Between them and Catherine O’Hara as Kevin’s mom and Roberts Blossom as his neighbour, it kept him contained.
Another element that sustains and gives ‘Home Alone’ more footing than it might deserve is John Williams’ motion picture score. I’ve had some reservations about Williams in recent years, feeling that he’s lost that quality that had sparked him into creating the iconic themes of ‘Star Wars’, ‘Jaws’, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, ‘Superman: The Movie’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.
However, in ‘Home Alone’, he gave us a score that takes itself seriously enough that the film doesn’t feel like a cheap comedy. It would have been easy to make it kooky or corny (or even sappy, given that the picture is set during the Christmas holidays), but Williams played it straight most of the way and supported Hughes and Columbus’ work.
Which, in the end, makes of ‘Home Alone’ a terrific achievement by Hughes and Columbus. Between the two of them, they were able to put together a pleasing family film that is molded in the same vein as Hughes’ ’80s teen classics. Oh, sure, the film falls apart at the end, with a few too many conveniences dished out to wrap it all up, but it still works.
It may not be a Christmas classic (it takes place at Christmas, but doesn’t affect much of the sentimentality), but ‘Home Alone’ is fun. Sure, it would have been far superior had they gotten a better lead, but it’s still a well-made picture that the whole family can watch together. It’s no wonder that it was the massive hit that it was.
Over two decades later, John Hughes still shows Hollywood how it’s done.
Date of viewing: December 19, 2013
Nice review! It really does add a lot to the film re-watching it now that I am familiar with John Hughes work, but of course as a kid I liked it as well (for different reasons). I also still prefer the sequel though. It must be New York..
Ah… so I’m not entirely nuts, then?! The sequel may actually be better/more enjoyable than the original? I can’t wait to watch it again. Maybe in time for the next round of Xmas blurbs… 😉
Definitely not nuts! It’s one I have to re-watch whenever they show it on TV (or at least bits and pieces). A lot of it is probably nostalgia.