“It’s very G… It’s loaded. Stereos, VCRs, possible cash horde, odd marketable securities. Who knows? It’s a gem.” - Harry (Joe Pesci)
You know you’re watching an older film when criminals are going gaga over hot commodities like VCRs. Everything about Home Alone (1990) is dated, from the McCallister’s overwhelming household wallpaper to the pre-flight rituals of airport security. It all looks like something from even longer than 25 years ago. Despite that, the film lives on as an annual staple in the Christmas viewing rituals of millions. The antics of little Macaulay Culkin provide tireless amusement as he acts like a fool, thwarts criminals, and generally goes to the extreme with behaviors most people wish they had the freedom to do at some point in their childhood.
Home Alone speaks to those who remember simpler, less connected days. Its vast 90s-ness is one of its most charming qualities. It will be interesting to see if the film continues to dominate the Christmas viewing landscape in another 25 years, as its premise is founded on situations that simply wouldn’t be an issue in modern life. Today’s kids probably think it’s really weird that Kate McCallister (Catherine O’Hara) doesn’t just call Kevin with her cell, or that the IP cameras positioned around the house (which every multi-million dollar home in Winnetka would absolutely have) aren’t capturing any of this mayhem. Nothing about Home Alone makes much sense, and that is becoming truer on more levels with the passage of time.
Kevin gets left at home because his ticket gets soaked with milk and thrown out, the McCallisters’ power goes out and their nightstand alarm clock resets to midnight, the neighbor is mistakenly counted as Kevin, the family rushes through the airport so quickly they don’t bother to make sure everyone is there, and because of a famous Chicago snowstorm, nobody can get in touch with Kevin once they realize what fools they are.
Zero of those things are modern-day problems, and all of them have an easily-remedied solution in today’s technological world.
People seeing Home Alone for the first time today would have to be willing to view it through the lens of its era, and ignore the fact that every element of the film’s script is massively contrived. The passage of time and extrapolation of oneself from directly identifying with the era of a film through first-hand experience always makes it slightly harder to appreciate, the jokes harder to accept, and the suspension of disbelief harder to suspend. That may be doubly true when none of it made that much sense even in 1990.
That said, for those who loved Home Alone years ago, it forever remains a classic. When Kevin finds out he has been forgotten in his third-floor bed, his initial reaction is to utilize his freedom to the best of his imagination: snooping through his brother’s trunk of secrets (“Buzz, your girlfriend! Woof!”), shooting army men down the laundry chute with a BB gun, jumping on the bed, running around in circles like an electrocuted chimpanzee, and eating junk while watching rubbish (“Too bad Acey ain’t in charge no more!”). Kevin is earlier seen bullied by his older brother, his grumpy uncle, and his incontinent cousin to the point where a little sweet freedom feels good. “I made my family disappear,” he says, raising his eyebrows to the camera.
Ebert writes, “Home Alone is a splendid movie title because it evokes all sorts of scary nostalgia. Being left home alone, when you were a kid, meant hearing strange noises and being afraid to look in the basement - but it also meant doing all the things that grownups would tell you to stop doing, if they were there. Things like staying up to watch Johnny Carson, eating all the ice cream, and sleeping in your parents' bed.”
Kevin also plays grown-up while nobody is around. He does laundry. He takes a bath and puts on after shave, monologuing his own little beauty regimen infomercial in the mirror before his famous hand-slap-face scream. He goes shopping (with coupons) and to the drug store, where he asks unusual questions for an eight year-old in regards to the American Dental Association’s approval of a toothbrush. Just as much as kids love the freedom to be zany and reckless, they are in a hurry to grow up. Kevin portrays both sides of childhood ambition.
Of course, Kevin’s adult behavior becomes amplified when he’s threatened by two goofy criminals, Harry and Marv (Daniel Stern), serial looters dubbed the Wet Bandits. Kevin displays inexplicable engineering prowess in booby-trapping his house to stymie the criminals, like some twisted prodigy love child of Rube Goldberg and Jigsaw from Saw (2004). The attempted burglary segment of the film is a slapstick sequence of aggressive and creative self-defense that appeals to audiences, as there is little violence easier to justify than violence in defense of a child being attacked by adults. And when the child in question is the one outsmarting his perpetrators, it makes it even more fun. It’s hard to deny the comedy of Christmas ornaments and Micro Machines becoming lethal weapons, and impossible to not laugh at Marv’s cartoonishly extreme scream when the tarantula drops on his unsuspecting face.
The full-frontal assault Kevin throws at Harry and Marv requires roughly the same suspension of disbelief necessary to believe Wylie E. Coyote survived all those anvils to the head, and can stand on empty space for five seconds before plummeting off a cliff. The reality of Kevin’s traps are extremely violent and he would have killed both men a few times over, but the outrageousness of every ingredient in Home Alone augments the farcical comedy of what is happening. (And as an adult, having seen Joe Pesci in all his other films, the tongue-in-cheek way Home Alone mocks his prolific vocabulary of expletives through endless “friggin-fraggin-fruggin-ness” adds to its goofy charm.)
The sub-plot of Home Alone is actually the source of much of its holiday sentiment, wherein Kevin has a philosophical conversation with his geriatric (and rumored to be serial killer) neighbor (Roberts Blossom) about the value of family. Shortly after Kevin is inevitably reunited with his family, he looks outside and sees the same happening between his neighbor and his son. Notwithstanding the fact Home Alone has a scene where a six inch nail goes through a guy's foot, it never forgets it is a Christmas picture, and the lasting feeling John Hughes’ script attempts to leave us with is that family togetherness matters, despite the differences or problems that exist between its members.
Director Chris Columbus has made a number of pictures, and the majority of them involve children. Though not generally hailed as one of cinema’s great auteurs, he does have a knack for creating films that, regardless of their age or unlikeliness, capture a certain spirit that survives the test of time. Home Alone is one of those films that audiences have been returning to year after year, and that is a true achievement in the oversaturated, generally crummy genre of Christmas movies.