Slapstick Wanna-Be

It's no mystery why Home Alone became one of the most successful movies of all time. The first clue lies in that seductive title, a situation that kids with siblings daydream about: a little autonomy in their own houses. Flawlessly defending yourself and your turf, as Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) does against bumbling burglars Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), is another fantasy that the younger set, especially boys, find irresistible.

What's harder to figure out is why I, who am regularly reduced to hysterics by the Looney Tunes, find both Home Alone and its paradoxically titled sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, such miserably unlikable films.

It isn't that I have anything against brainless, violent, antisocial entertainment for youngsters. Many of my own childhood favorites fall into these categories. But something about these two films seems unhealthy in a way that their popularity only underscores.

Maybe it's just the star. Long before the rumors of his off-camera brattiness began to circulate, Culkin came across to me as a nasty, glassy-eyed, self-absorbed performer. He speaks his dialogue in floods of rote, and his smiles are what you'd expect to see on a boy pulling the head off his sister's doll.

Or maybe it's the bourgeois smugness. Seeing Kevin lord his mastery over his spacious upper-middle-class house (his absence was overlooked by his vacationing family), and maim those who would presume to intrude was obnoxious enough. Worse still is seeing this same pasty, yuppie spawn lost in Gotham (this time he gets on the wrong plane), live it up in a luxury hotel, and then bring light and fellowship into the life of a Central Park homeless woman (Brenda Fricker of My Left Foot). The scene in which Kevin plays spiritual therapist to her may be the most sickening thing I've seen on a movie screen this year.

Or maybe it's the cruel-spiritedness of the physical gags. These films are the only ones I can think of to which the term "sub-Three Stooges comedy" might apply. In the better violent cartoons, we're invited to laugh at the pain of others because a distancing from reality is provided. In both Home Alones, we're invited to laugh at the pain of others because it's happening to them, not us.

The fact that Harry and Marv are criminals only strengthens Kevin's pitilessness. When Wile E. Coyote plunges off a cliff, it isn't because the Roadrunner outsmarted him, but because his fate is cosmically ordained. We may not have wanted him to catch the Roadrunner, but we knew how he felt. When Kevin exults over his flattened enemies, it's because he watched those same cartoons for years without ever getting this point.

John Hughes, the writer-producer, and Chris Columbus, the director, made extremely lucrative careers for themselves appealing to the archetypical fantasies of white suburban teenagers in films like Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, and Adventures in Babysitting. I don't mean to denigrate them too much for this; those films were all harmless enough, really pretty good in their limited ways.

But when Hughes and Columbus turned their aim from teens to the kiddie set, with Uncle Buck and more so with the Home Alones, the approach became flat pandering, and the result is a kind of meanness that kids can't help but be drawn to, yet which doesn't enrich them.

Home Alone 2 isn't without its diversions. As the snooty hotel staff, Rob Schneider, Dana Ivey, and especially the reliable Tim Curry do some pretty good clowning (Curry does a great reaction to being slapped).

Catherine O'Hara, a really wonderful comic actress, comes across badly in both these films as Kevin's persnickety mother, but as the reticent father, John Heard -- probably out of profound uninterest in the role -- seems mellow and relaxed. He was the only person in both films I really liked having around.

Stern and Pesci (who openly imitates Yosemite Sam) are good sports, since they aren't even attempting the respectable task of playing comic villains -- Harry and Marv are just patsies for Kevin to wound so he can feel powerful. Kevin pummels Harry and Marv this time, by the way, because they've robbed a toy store of its Christmas Eve take, which was to be donated to a children's hospital by the twinkly eyed owner (Eddie Bracken).

I thought of a better ending for the film than the one Hughes and Columbus devised. How about this: Harry and Marv catch Kevin and beat him within an inch of his life. Then the cops catch them and recover the loot. Kevin winds up in the children's hospital, where he enjoys a great Christmas with a lot of new friends. After all, the Roadrunner he ain't.

Directed by Chris Columbus; written and produced by John Hughes; with Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Tim Curry, John Heard, Catherine O'Hara, and Brenda Fricker.



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