Man of the House
The king of 80s teen angst, John Hughes will be forever be venerated by Gen-Xers as the writer/director of our Holy Flick: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But his favorite movie with the rest of the world is probably Home Alone, which Hughes wrote. One indication, admittedly drawn from an extremely tiny sampling of moviewatchers: To this day, ten years after the release of the biggest-grossing film of 1990, my mother — who tends to refer to actors as “the guy from that TV show” or “the one who was married to that other one in that movie” — calls Macaulay Culkin, adoringly, “Home Alone.”
My mom is not alone. By pretty much universal popular acclaim, Home Alone has established itself as a modern classic. And it deserves that status. Yes, as a drama, it’s obvious and sentimental. As a comedy, it’s silly and cartoonish, like watching an 8-year-old Road Runner fend off two Wily Coyotes. But hey, those old toons were pretty darn entertaining.
Ah, the lives of people who live in John Hughes movies — and those directed by Chris Columbus (Stepmom), as Home Alone is. Living the upper-middle-class dream, the McCallisters ramble through a suburban Chicago home that’s closer to being a mansion than a tract house: their kitchen alone, I swear, has more square footage than my four-room apartment. And for Christmas this year, the lucky McCallisters are going to Paris: two parents and all five (or is it six?) kids, along with a handful of cousins and a matching aunt-and-uncle set. The adults will be flying in first class, no less. The thought of having this kind of money is beyond me. Just the cost of heating that house would kill me.
But they’re not perfect, so it’s okay to hate them. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), the youngest kid in the bunch, is ignored to the point that he’s expected to pack his own suitcase, which I imagine would result in a bag full of comic books and one sneaker. He’s picked on by everyone, and when his uncle calls him a “little jerk” (for the crime of spilling a glass of milk), his mother (Catherine O’Hara: The Nightmare Before Christmas) does not come to her child’s defense with a “Hey, don’t call my son a jerk.” Heck, she doesn’t even throw the uncle a dirty look. Instead, she sends Kevin to bed, way up in the attic guest room, all alone. “Families suck,” Kevin observes, and it’s hard not to agree with the little guy.
So imagine his delight when he awakens the next morning to find himself all alone in the humongous house. Unbeknownst to him, the entire gang overslept, and in the mad rush to get to the airport, Kevin was inadvertently left behind — and it’s not until the plane is airborne that Mom’s nagging feeling that they’ve forgotten something pays off. But Kevin thinks his wish that “they would all just disappear” has been granted, and he couldn’t be happier.
The young Culkin is a little self-conscious on camera, but he has definite charm, and carries the movie by himself with no problem — this is, perhaps, one of the most memorable child starring roles in movie history. His glee at being home alone is tempered by fear, naturally, especially of the scary furnace in the basement, and Culkin balances these opposing emotions well. And as a grownup who’s had to try to keep herself from laughing at the precocious antics of a child, so as not to encourage too much similar behavior, I like being able to laugh safely at a skinny little kid, clad only in a towel, lip-synching in a mirror to a jazzy version of “White Christmas” — or later, mouthing along with the dialogue of a hard-boiled noir flick on the VCR.
This kind of too-adult behavior rankles if it goes on too long, though, and here it’s tempered by the fact that Kevin is a pretty realistic kid. Even when the movie turns outrageously slapsticky with the arrival of the stupid and petty — and funny — burglars Harry (Joe Pesci: Lethal Weapon 4) and Marv (Daniel Stern: Very Bad Things), Kevin’s reaction, as he springs to the defense of his home, is believable if highly exaggerated. Kids can be very protective of their little worlds, and Kevin is determined to keep his stuff safe.
What is slightly improbable, however, is that Kevin would get the mess he and the burglars make in the house cleaned up in time for the inevitable return of Mom and Co.. But this is just a fantasy, after all.