Home Alone ★★

Part of Buddy the Elf, What's Your Favorite Color?

“Kevin, you are such a disease.”

There is a temptation to say that the culture is careening headlong toward oblivion. That the things that are popular now are not as good as the things that were popular in yesteryear. That we are all riding a downward slope to an Idiocracy-type society wherein the only joke of any cultural relevance will consist of someone getting hit in the balls.

But this is only partly true. For one thing, anything involving “balls” always was and always will be funny. I mean, it’s right there on the face of it. “Balls.”

Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to stop laughing....

For another, disturbing trends emerge all the time, of course, but they tend to be replacements of prior disturbing trends, different in kind rather than in degree. Yes, the highest-grossing films of today may all be sequels and reboots devoid of imagination, heartless cash grabs from a greedy Hollywood behemoth. But drivel has always had a certain allure. History is on perpetual repeat.

For evidence, look no further than the winter of 1990-91, when Home Alone reigned at the box office for 12 straight weeks from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day. Twelve. People could not get enough of Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin) and his antics—so enamored was the American public that Home Alone continued to pop up in the box office top ten well into June 1991. It was a force to be reckoned with, grabbing the zeitgeist by the throat and biting down until its jugular was fully exsanguinated. It became an instant and permanent part of the cultural consciousness.

It is also terrible.

Not terrible in the Ed Wood manner of thorough incompetence—it is a 20th Century Fox production, written and directed by professional filmmakers. And not terrible in its ostensible message—if one steps way back and squints really hard, one can see a moral about the importance of family, which is perfectly agreeable. Rather, Home Alone is terrible because it is a mean-spirited film populated by nasty people that emotionally manipulates its audience in the most cynical, unconvincing ways possible. It is a misanthropic hatefest masquerading as a jovial holiday jaunt.

But wait! Isn’t this a beloved Christmas classic? Isn’t this a staple of basic cable throughout the holiday season? Isn’t this a wellspring of fond memories for those of a certain age? Yes. Yes to all of the above. Having seen Home Alone numerous times, I have wracked my brain to determine what I am missing, what fundamental defect I must suffer that I cannot enjoy this universally cherished treasure. But try as I might, I just cannot see it. I love Christmas, as anyone who knows me will attest. And I love plenty of Christmas comedies, including loud and broad ones aimed at younger audiences (A Christmas Story and Elf, for example, are among my favorite films). Nor do I mind a nice helping of appropriately calibrated sentiment in my Christmas entertainments. None of the general elements is inherently distasteful to me. The weight of opinion is decidedly against me, though, and so I am comfortable that my feelings about Home Alone must be overlooking some crucial ingredient. But I am equally comfortable that my feelings are well-founded in what writer John Hughes and director Chris Columbus have put onscreen.

The McAllisters, we may stipulate, are awful people. Ambulatory piles of human garbage. This much cannot be gainsaid. They treat each other deplorably with little-to-no regard for the impact of their actions on others. They act as though primitive man developed language only to use it as a poison-laced dart to be thrown at his fellow humans. They are repulsive, through and through. This creates several problems for Hughes’ and Columbus’ goals. For one, little Kevin is supposed to be the put-upon youngest child, alternately pestered and ignored and viewed as a burden, such that he has our sympathies. But little Kevin, disrespectful budding sadist that he is, is no more sympathetic than his self-absorbed, hate-filled relatives. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh toward Kevin—after all, he has learned his behavior from a pack of howling mongrels—but a child who says to his parents things like, “Hang up the phone and make me, why don’t you?” and “I am upstairs, dummy,” is not some meek, beleaguered urchin. He is a child who has willfully entrenched himself on the naughty list and deserves at best a stocking full of coal (or perhaps hot manure), not our rooting interest.

For another, this deplorability makes the entire goal of the story—the reuniting and reconciliation of the McAllister family—an impossible proposition to desire. The only sensible wish is that Child Protective Services should intervene and, at the very least, install some regular visits from a social worker to solve this family’s immense communication problems. One can scarcely think of a less preferable finale than the contrived, syrup-laden one on offer, with mom Kate (Catherine O’Hara), dad Peter (John Heard), brother Buzz (Devin Ratray) and the rest coming together, the credits rolling just before the next round of multivalent verbal abuse kicks in. A scenario in which the McAllisters were collectively hit by a bus and Kevin were put up for adoption, coupled with court-mandated therapy, would count as a happier ending.

Even if one overlooks the thorough reprehensibility of the protagonists, contrivances and inconsistencies of convenience abound. The McCallisters, for example, apparently live on the only street in America where every single family (save one deus ex old man) leaves home for Christmas—how nice for our villains, the “Wet Bandit” burglar team of Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern). And not only is the street deserted, but it has no small amount of bad luck, what with power and phone outages that are, incidentally, central to the film’s plot—the former leading the family to oversleep, in turn leading to their rush to the airport for their Christmas trip to Paris, resulting in the small detail of overlooking one of their large brood of brats; the latter leaving the stranded brat incommunicado, unable to be reached by phone (along with the neighbors). Nevermind that the neighbors are all gone anyway, and that this is the reason the burglars have set up camp there, giving the film its source of conflict. No bother, boxes checked on your “Big Movie Checklist” need not all line up. We need the McCallisters to seem like concerned parents, after all, even if nothing that goes before would so indicate. And we need Kevin to be phoneless so as to make the central dilemma harder to solve—until, of course, Kevin needs to demonstrate what an “adorable scamp” (read: entitled enfant terrible with unchecked anger issues) he is by ordering a pizza solely for purposes of torturing the delivery boy. How, with no phone and no internet, does Kevin order that pizza? By mail, by carrier pigeon, by Pony Express—who cares when we’re setting up another joke founded in unfettered cruelty?!

Even worse are the character inconsistencies. Granted, Home Alone is not intended to be King Lear (though its implications are just as tragic), but requesting some sort of plausible character arc is not exactly asking for the moon. At the beginning of the film, Kevin is presented as something of a dullard (what the French might call les incompetents), so thoroughly inept that he is panic-stricken at the thought of having to pack a suitcase. Yet once left to his own devices, Kevin becomes something of a wunderkind, able to leap tall plot contrivances in a single bound. As Roger Ebert put it, Kevin “single-handedly stymies two house burglars by booby-trapping the house. And they’re the kinds of traps that any 8-year-old could devise, if he had a budget of tens of thousands of dollars and the assistance of a crew of movie special effects people.” (While Kevin’s improvised home security system is presented as a sort of live-action Wile E. Coyote-vs.-Road Runner scenario to make it palatable for a wide audience, it sits quite uneasily alongside the other evidence of Kevin’s character, aiming as it does for maximum infliction of pain and leading one to ponder what might have become of the adult Kevin.) No doubt Kevin’s remarkably quick-witted, intricate Rube Goldberg devices are meant as evidence of his blossoming in the absence of his monstrous relatives' constant persecution (though this is, again, problematic, since we’re supposed to be rooting for a reunion with those burdensome tyrants).

But, like those Rube Goldberg devices, Kevin’s deportment from moment to moment is simply a matter of whatever beat Hughes and Columbus want to hit, without regard for scene-to-scene coherence. Kevin needs to be dumb? Sure, fine. Now Kevin needs to be preternaturally brilliant? Why not. Kevin needs to hate his family? Eh, sounds good. Now Kevin, for no apparent reason, sorely misses them? Great, alright, swell. Mixing zany antics and genuine heart is difficult, but it can be done; even combining negative character traits and heartfelt emotion is, while not easy, certainly attainable—at its best, The Simpsons did it beautifully for years. But Kevin’s wild veering from ill-tempered holy terror to wise-beyond-his-years lover of family is so obviously driven by cynical plot manipulation that it rings utterly hollow.

But the mercenary emotional contortions of Hughes’ and Columbus’ story and its myriad gimmicks wouldn’t grate so intensely were it not for the mendacity of their true (not pretended) central thesis: That how you treat others doesn’t matter; that family is to be treated like a heinous obligation with maximum disrespect; that even the cruelest of behavior can be whitewashed with a smile and a “whatever” shrug. Kevin McAllister is not a hero, and the McAllisters are not a charmingly dysfunctional family. They are monsters. Do not follow their lead. Treat others kindly. Be generous of spirit and respectful of others’ humanity. Try to embody basic decency. Kevin, you and your family—woof!

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