If you go back and read the reviews from Home Alone’s release in 1990, you’ll find a portion of major critics and publications weren’t too kind to it. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times said the movie suffered from implausibility; Caryn James from The New York Times called it “flat and unsurprising;” in The Washington Post, Jeanne Cooper remarked that the film was “too crass, too loud and too violent to be added blithely to Christmas viewing traditions.” It seems weird that such a cherished holiday favorite would have received such bad reviews, doesn’t it?
Unless, of course, this movie about a cheeky grade schooler who is accidentally left alone at home while his entire family is living it up in France over the holidays, all the while compelled to fend off dangerous burglars by using toys and random crap from the family’s basement is actually bad. Hmmm. Stay with me, folks.
KEVIN IS A JERK
Kevin McCallister is an insufferable, know-it-all brat, a probable by-product of his even more insufferable family. Without a doubt, the McCallisters are detestable people in desperate need of learning their lesson, and the first half of the movie plays out like wish fulfillment for all those “youngest” children out there who had to continually endure merciless tormenting by older siblings. Perhaps it’s because I’m an only child that I have difficulty connecting to this portion of the movie — or perhaps it’s because Kevin’s character depth is too shallow for him to truthfully be all that relatable. Kevin is a manufactured child, one with just the right amounts of both smart-assery and sweetness, but the missing ingredient is vulnerability. At no point do we see eight-year old Kevin cry, or ask his neighbors for help; in fact, after Kevin comes to grips with his situation (suspiciously quickly, I may add), his actions hint that he doesn’t at all mind that his family has left him behind. He continues to perform daily tasks like laundry and shopping, preferring to ask a mundane question about the FDA approval of a toothbrush to a shop cashier, rather than say “hey, actually, can I get your help because I don’t know where my family is?” I suppose these character moments are there to show us just how capable (read: precocious) Kevin is, and in a heightened movie reality like this one, we’re not supposed to care too much about the sensibility of them. However, that doesn’t stop Kevin’s true colors from showing through; critical thinkers know he’s a secretly sadistic, self-obsessed, rising sociopath.
Kevin consciously decides not to seek help from neighbors, townspeople, or hell, even police, and all those booby traps he makes to ward off the criminals only serve as evidence of his sociopathy. Sociopaths often want to inflict pain upon others because of the reinforcement it gives them of their own power. Since Kevin is virtually powerless in his home environment, it would only make sense that he would develop sociopathic tendencies. Kevin would rather “play” with the crooks than utilize any real life outlet for help, and clearly, Kevin is most delighted when he is most cruel; it’s as if he’s helpless to derive so much pleasure from other people’s pain (“You guys give up? Or are you thirsty for more?!”). It’s all one big demented game to him, like a kiddie version of torture porn (see again: Jeanne Cooper’s “too violent” comment).
If we skip to the sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York has a scene in which Kevin is being pursued by Harry and Marv on the street. To get away from them, Kevin squeezes a woman’s butt in a crosswalk. The woman, rightfully offended, turns to Marv and clobbers him, thinking he was the one who grabbed her behind. Kevin gets away, and we all laugh that Marv is beaten, but really, Kevin’s escape — his victory — is at the cost of this woman’s dignity. When the pair finally do catch up to Kevin, he could have made loud, animated protests while in their clutches, and surely with two sketchy-looking men lugging a rowdy child around New York City, someone would have noticed and tried to do something. But Kevin doesn’t, not because he’s afraid, but because he enjoys screwing with people too much. He wants to lead them to his uncle’s empty townhouse where he can barrage them with another round of abusive traps and games. Wouldn’t it have been much easier this time if he just went straight to the NYPD? He doesn’t exactly have a home to defend in this installment; in fact, he’s ruining all the progress of the renovations his uncle is doing to that townhouse (do insurance companies cover damage done via insolent squatting children? Further, are bricks and paint cans considered part of “stand your ground”?) just because he’s too obsessed with having his fun with these two guys (“Don’t you know a kid always wins against two idiots?” he gloats). Sociopaths typically have issues with projection, so maybe Kevin’s even taking out the frustrations from his home life on this unseen uncle — the one McCallister who might actually be nice, given he was the one who sprung for the trip to France the previous year anyway. What a little douche.
HOME ALONE NORMALIZED TRUMP
For a few years now I’ve been joking around with the above statement, the obvious reason being the future POTUS’s brief onscreen appearance in Home Alone 2, but the real reason I say this has to do with blue collar America and the class struggle. John Hughes’s best stories typically deal with different kinds of class issues and how we can work through them (I don’t have to name John Hughes movies, do I?). Home Alone, though, is one in particular where class is subtly introduced, but there doesn’t seem to be a broader lesson to be learned about it.
The villains of our story are two men who have rejected conventional ways to earn a living in favor of a life of crime. In that sense, thieving is a job for Harry and Marv, and they take their job very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that Marv inflates the importance of the duo by insisting they give themselves a nickname (cutely, “The Wet Bandits”) and a “calling card” because “all the great ones leave their mark.” The Wet Bandits are a product of a broken system, boorish and likely uneducated men whom society has placed low expectations upon; men who have turned being downtrodden into a steady income in the only way they know how. Just like many of us, Harry “puts in the work” in order to be successful, going so far as to case neighborhoods by posing as Chicago PD to earn the trust of suburbanites going away on holiday (by the way, is that police uniform tax deductible?). Additionally, Harry learns the timer schedules of all the Christmas lights for each of the households on the McCallister’s block — quite the homework for a menial criminal! Harry also tells Marv his idea about leaving the water running at each house they hit is “a sick thing to do,” so we know Harry is less concerned about flair than his partner and intends to keep what they’re doing strictly professional. Admittedly, it’s kind of admirable.
But the cartoony, reductive nature in which the two villains are portrayed takes the film from heightened reality to hyper reality (especially in the sequel). Marv is pretty much a dolt anyway, but Harry (the smart one) is diminished by his adoption of a language that only Yosemite Sam can understand. We don’t know the backstory of the Wet Bandits, but to give them the benefit of the doubt, how they’re presented here is indicative of how society regards men who are simply down on their luck (even the way Kevin shakes his head and says, “I’m a criminal” after his unintentional shoplifting excursion is proof). This conservative-leaning trope kind of ruins the movie for me in some small ways; capitalism often takes the fall for the inherent greediness of people, but sometimes men resort to thieving because they just aren’t presented with many other options. So, the story really is yet another example in which the wealthy and class-privileged prevail, without much regard to the struggles of the common working man who’s just trying to stay afloat. Some men are born with a silver spoon and others are not, so it’s arguably fair that we sympathize with the Wet Bandits because, well, they represent more of us than the McCallisters do.
Before we move on, there’s another could-be conservative stereotype that’s maintained in Home Alone: the way it treats the elderly. Older people represent the unknown here, and therefore are made to be scary. In Home Alone 2, one of the characters is a strange homeless woman who feeds pigeons on the streets of New York; her clothes are tattered and her face is dirty and withered, and Kevin runs from her screaming. Isn’t it odd that Kevin would first respond with so much fear towards a woman who, despite her shabby appearance, emits such a gentle vibe? Maybe not, since homeless citizens are often characterized by society to be scary and dangerous. To focus on the first film, though, we have Kevin’s neighbor (aptly named “Old Man” Marley), whom all the neighborhood children label as a weirdo because he cares enough to spend his time shoveling and salting the snowy sidewalks so his neighbors can get around safely. Kevin’s older brother Buzz tells the story of “the South Bend Shovel Slayer”: this man, their neighbor, allegedly murdered his whole family with a snow shovel, and is able to walk free to this day, still murdering as he pleases, and hiding the corpses in his large garbage can full of salt. Even though apparently director Chris Columbus was behind the addition of Marley’s character, it feels likely Hughes was nostalgic for the thick stories kids tell while attempting to scare one another. Outside of that, as an adult it’s more than frustrating to see Kevin so easily influenced by Buzz’s warning against talking to a veritably harmless neighbor who turns out to be quite a loving old man (also disappointing that Kevin wouldn’t have used what he learned about Marley and refrain from making initial assumptions about the woman he meets in the sequel). But, alas, everything in Home Alone happens for a reason, which is where my real antipathy comes from.
JOHN HUGHES AIN’T INFALLIBLE, KIDS
I’m no expert on screenwriting. I can, however, recognize when script elements align in such a way that makes the film seem disingenuous. Obviously the way plots generally progress is “one thing leads to another,” but Home Alone’s script outlines its events so egregiously; this is “Chekhov’s gun” cranked up so far that it hits thoughtful viewers on the head much too repeatedly (maybe a more appropriate phrasing would be “Checkhov’s staple gun,” “Checkhov’s paint can,” “Checkhov’s Micro Machines,” you get the jist). No wonder Caryn James called this thing “flat and uninspiring.”
Kevin might be an unexpected genius in some ways (the kid really should grow up to be an engineer), but the implausibility of his genius almost cancels out any of that esteem. Kevin can’t even pack his own suitcase (cue his sister’s infamous line, “You’re what the French call les incompetents”), yet we’re expected to believe he’s able to craft elaborate booby traps that might put Rube Goldberg to shame (Yes, Elbee, we are. It’s how the script sets up Kevin’s transformation to be even more amazing). The movie itself is a Rube Goldberg, with everything happening as a direct result of something else. Kevin’s wish to make his family disappear was heard by someone (never mind if it’s God, the Devil, Clarence the Angel, or that driving spiritual force behind Final Destination), which set things in motion; a magically hefty gust of wind knocks out both the power and phone lines, causing the family to oversleep. An annoying neighborhood child who happens to wander onto the set wanders out just as conveniently, literally seconds after he’s mistaken for Kevin in a headcount. It’s just all too easy! Ebert said, “The plot is so implausible that it makes it hard for us to really care about the plight of the kid,” and that’s exactly what I’m getting at here. For some of us, suspension of disbelief only goes so far.
But then, there are character elements that help give this some semblance of a decent script: most notably Buzz being an incessant dickcheese and Uncle Frank’s infinite tone deafness (Frank’s “if it makes you feel any better, I forgot my reading glasses” line in the airplane receives the gold star). Buzz’s story about Old Man Marley being a serial killer is a perfect set-up to give Marley a hero moment later in the film, when he, as incidentally predicted, uses his snow shovel to give the two criminals a good wallop, saving the day (which, by the way, is a gentle reminder that in actuality, Kevin can’t do everything by himself, the little eyebrow-raising twerp). I really can’t help but “see through” these elements, though admittedly, that may be my bias showing.
Hughes was a prolific writer, cranking out scripts faster than Hollywood could keep up with (among others, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was written in a mere seven days!). With such a notoriously quick turnaround, undoubtedly there’s got to be some quality control issues, and some cultural critics even cite this script for ruining Hughes’s career. It’s true that after Home Alone, Hughes’s output turned from relatively edgy, youth-oriented stories to cartoonish and mostly terrible family-friendly fare based on the same Home Alone formula (Curly Sue, Baby’s Day Out), not to mention a bunch of movies centering around the lives of dogs. Maybe that’s why I really don’t like this movie, that it signals the end of a distinctly special era. Hughes probably had an idea it would happen though, based on his words from this 1986 interview wherein he explains to Molly Ringwald the nature of highly influential creators: “My heroes were Dylan, John Lennon and Picasso, because they each moved their particular medium forward, and when they got to the point where they were comfortable, they always moved on.” Did Hughes purposely lose his inspiration? We’ll never know.
OKAY OKAY, GOSH
But, I admit, if you look beyond all its misgivings, Home Alone is quite the heartwarming story. Of course there’s the obvious stuff about family and not taking who and what we have for granted, but the bigger message is about facing our fears. How often do we put off doing something because of anxiety? Whatever that “thing” is can vary in importance; it can be a life necessity or something as inconsequential as opening mail or making a phone call, but we don’t do it because we’re afraid of what’s on the other side. Kevin has that with going downstairs to the basement, Old Man Marley has that with calling his son for the holidays after so many years of not speaking. The scene in the church shared between Kevin and Marley may be the most relevant in the entire film, and Kevin’s words about his epiphany concerning the scariness of the basement are resonant: “If you turn on the lights, it’s no big deal.” Indeed, if we learn to face whatever it is that’s giving us anxiety, more than likely we will find out that it is (and always was) no big deal. Kevin also advises Marley call his son, telling him, “Then at least you’ll know, and you won’t be afraid anymore.” That relief is our reward, or rather, our motivation to use this simple wisdom in future scary situations.
Add to that illuminative message the abject sincerity of John Candy’s performance, along with Catherine O’Hara’s perpetual flawlessness, and my frozen heart melts a little. But don’t take that as me conceding: I still think Home Alone is an annoying movie (by the way, aftershave only burns if you’ve actually just shaved, kid.). YOU WON’T CHANGE MY MIND! I’m just able to…tolerate the film more, which I guess, with any given holiday movie, is all we can ask for.