December 20, 2016

Home Alone (1990)

When the McAllisters leave Chicago for a Christmas holiday, they accidentally leave behind eight year-old Kevin (Macaulay Culkin). While doing his best to cope while they are gone, Kevin discovers a pair of burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) are planning to rob his home on Christmas Eve.

Home Alone is one of those movies that was enormously popular at the time, made a huge and lasting impact on popular culture, but which is regularly pilloried and mocked for being a terrible film. I have honestly always liked it. It's an odd sort of film, in that the elements that made its reputation - Kevin unleashing a series of overtly violent slapstick traps upon the thieves Harry (Pesci) and Marv (Stern) - only comprises about 20 minutes out of a 90 minute film. It is that remaining 70 minutes that I find most interesting: a series of scenes and situations of an eight year-old placed in charge of his own life and having to negotiate it the best he can. It is regularly sentimental stuff, but it's a sentiment regularly punctured by quite honest moments about childhood, child-like fears, and abandonment.

The film is written by John Hughes, a writer best remembered for his outstanding screenplays like The Breakfast Club. That film presented a brilliant and naturalistic insight into teenage life, and - slapstick climax aside - I think he broadly manages something similar here with Home Alone. It's a film about an eight year-old child, and several of the quieter scenes do feel as if they've nailed that mind-set. There is an emotional honesty at work here, although it's intermittent.

Everybody went nuts for Macaulay Culkin when Home Alone came out, and while he does have a pretty limited range at this stage of his career he is an engaging and fairly cute lead. As the witless burglars that attempt to rob his house, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern give broad, comedic performances that do their job sufficiently without adding any unnecessary subtlety or depth. Of the two it is Stern who seems to have a particular gift for physical comedy, including delivering one of the best screams I've ever seen and heard in a movie.

Catherine O'Hara is particularly strong as Kevin's mother. It is actually a slightly tricky role, since it requires great comic timing but also a strong sense of just how awful, terrified and guilty a woman in her position must feel. Too much comedy and the character would be wasted. Too much upset and the comedy would collapse. She walks that tightrope very well.

A particular highlight for me is Roberts Blossom as "Old Man Marley", the elderly gentleman who lives next door to Kevin and whom Kevin believes in a homicidal killer. He isn't, of course, but Kevin's child-like fears spark off a great running joke during the film's first half, with Kevin running screaming every time he sees this creepy white haired man around town. Later when he and Kevin share a conversation in a church, a whole different character emerges. It is my favourite scene in the film.

Of course there's a lot of twee sentimentality going on, and that is emphasised by John William's ridiculously Christmassy score. There are so many bells and Christmas choirs dropped in that half the time it sounds like Danny Elfman rather than Williams. You can also hear the beginnings of several subsequent Williams scores lurking inside, including Hook and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. If you're in the mood for an overwhelming flood of Christmas-time sentiment, Williams' score is the one for you.

That basically leaves the slapstick bits. The film was essentially sold on them: they dominated the trailers, and even today it's the part everybody seems to remember. They are tonally misjudged, and present the sort of violence that if seen in a cartoon would probably be quite funny but when presented in live-action is mildly horrifying. People get burned, impaled, bludgeoned and floored. The sorts of traps Kevin sets would easily kill people. The film's climax continually over-steps the mark from comedy to just misplaced crude violence.

I seem to wind up watching Home Alone every December, because despite this failed climax there are so many nice little moments of comedy and character in the rest of the film. It's an imperfect film, but I can't help it: I really enjoy an awful lot of it.

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