09 November 2011

JOHN HUGHES, SCREENWRITER: HOME ALONE (1990)

Lovers of John Hughes frequently point to their childhood memories of seeing the writer-director-producer's classics as a huge part of their adult response to the same films; people from the commenters on this very blog to latter-day Neohughesian filmmakers like Judd Apatow. I have not thus far expressed much in the way of having such memories, because by and large I didn't watch any of these movies growing up, and now that I am finally going to share my "I saw this as a kid" story, it's the fill the exact opposite function. For when Home Alone was new in 1990, and I was just about nine years old - that is, exactly the movie's target audience - I fucking hated it with a fiery hate; it was the first time I'd ever felt that a movie was pandering to me, though I surely don't think I knew the word "pandering" at that time. I refer this sharp memory of childhood hatred to explain why, even though upon rewatching it for the first time in what has to be at least 17 or 18 years, and finding it to be mostly bland, pointless, and insubstantial, and not in any way awful enough to deserve that kind of furious loathing, I still have the itch to tear it a bouquet of new assholes. Critical blindness cuts both ways.

On firmer, more objective grounds, Home Alone was the single, solitary movie that Hughes had anything to do with in the whole of 1990 - after having written or produced or directed or often, all three, two movies every year between 1985 and 1989, it's hard to say he hadn't earned time off, as far as that goes. On the other hand, with a movie like Home Alone, one movie was all it took: the film was a massive success, the highest grossing film of the year, and if my memory does not abandon me entirely, it was at that point the third-highest grossing film in American box-office history, behind Star Wars and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Adjusted for inflation, the film made over half a billion dollars domestically. I defy you to imagine a slapstick adventure comedy aimed squarely at children and released during the holiday season to pull down The Dark Knight numbers today. The mind categorically rejects such a possibility as the ravings of a madman.

And yet, Home Alone exists; it struck a chord that apparently needed the striking, though who could have predicted the world was hungry for such a movie, I can't say - even Hughes in his wildest fancy couldn't have imagined the hit it would make with audiences. The world is strange and wonderful.

The script was based on a notion that came to the writer while he was packing for vacation once: what would happen if, in the hustle and bustle of trying to get on a plane during the busy holiday season, an 8-year-old boy was accidentally left behind? What would he do when given free reign of a household and suddenly made to shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood? How would his parents deal with the situation, and to what lengths would they go to get back in the face of every possible roadblock? If you are John Hughes, the answer to these questions hinges on the phrase, "pre-teen Straw Dogs", which is either proof of his audience-pleasing genius, or proof that he'd finally given up trying, depending upon your feelings about the film.

Anyway, the kid in question is Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin), who manages to piss off everyone in his family and be pissed off by all of them one night in December, and for his sins must sleep alone in the attic of the gigantic McAllister McMansion in the Chicago suburbs (Winnetka, where it was shot, makes sense given the rest of the few plot details that hinge on the location). A downed tree on the power lines keeps the whole family from waking up on time, and in the flurry of activity that results, one tiny mistake in the headcount sends 14 people to O'Hare International Airport and a Christmas in Paris, without anyone having ever thought to rouse Kevin. In the days that follow, the boy (believing that he wished his family into oblivion) spends plenty of time celebrating and running around and being in montages showing how excited he is to be home alone, but as time drifts by, he grows sadder and sadder at the thought of never seeing any of his family, not even his dickwad older brother, culminating in a Christmas Eve chat with the scary old man on his block (Roberts Blossom), who turns out to be as gentle and sad a soul as any little boy without any adult supervision could hope to accidentally run into. And Kevin realises how much he loves everybody, just in time for his mother (Catherine O'Hara) to return from a singularly error-ridden trip back from France.

Also, Kevin commits acts of incredible violence on a pair of robbers (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), one of whom threatens to cut the boy's testicles off.

Not everyone who dislikes Home Alone does so because of the shatteringly weird 20-minute interlude near the end where it turns into a wildly excessive live-action Tom & Jerry cartoon; but I do. You have, for virtually the entire running time, the most sickeningly sweet ickle lumpkins plot about the wonderfulness of family and the charms of the holiday season, and that is already a bit trying; and then you have a lovingly detailed shot of Stern putting his foot right on a huge goddamn spike, and of Pesci's head on fire, and of all three characters involved getting slammed into things and having things slammed into them until it seems impossible all three aren't reeling from horrible brain concussions (and, for that matter, it doesn't seem possible that Stern, at least, isn't dead). It is freakishly violent, and only the fact that it's ostensibly a comedy, and there's not a drop of blood, seem to have saved the film from a PG-13 rating; but that doesn't make it any less unpleasant and indeed nasty to watch - in fact, the comic tone of all of it somehow makes it worse.

What appears to be at issue is that this is written to be something of a fantasy, after the fashion of Hughes's own Ferris Bueller's Day Off, only executed without at trace as much skill. For it's not inherently impossible to imagine a film navigating the switch from broad family comedy with a huge sentimental streak to hyper-violent action comedy with a psychopathic 8-year-old beating Jigsaw from Saw to the punch by a decade and a half. A quick dose of cartoon anarchism has helped movies before, though usually not with such an abrupt change of tone. What Home Alone lacks, though, is a director with the deft hand to make that happen; what it has instead is Chris Columbus, one of the most singularly impersonal and talent-strapped filmmakers to ever command A-list budgets (by my count, there are only two good movies in his entire filmography: as director, Adventures in Babysitting, and as writer, Gremlins). This was his third film as a director, following a run of successful screenplays, and his biggest hit until he got paid I'd prefer not to know how much money to ruin the first two Harry Potter movies, Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secret into two of the most unlikable and anodyne blockbusters of the '00s; and it is not, as Chris Columbus movies go, terribly bad - I'd watch Home Alone on a steady loop before I'd try to finish off Bicentennial Man from the point where I gave up watching it ten years ago. But it is also not very good: there is a sense in nearly every scene (particularly the very oddly-paced opening in which Pesci, disguised as a cop, stands around the McAllister foyer without any interesting business, as exposition rattles by erratically) of how very hard it is to direct a movie, and every new camera angle wheezes with effort and self-consciousness: the movie plonks.

A better director could have helped the film out considerably, even saved it; Hughes himself would undoubtedly have made a far better Home Alone than this one, even without Columbus's meager experience with child actors. But even then, the script is tremendously weak, by Hughes's standards or anybody else's: the entire thing is nothing but a long string of contrivances, in which characters make impossibly stupid choices solely to continue driving the plot forward. I do not only refer to the actively painful set-up by which Kevin is left home alone, though surely that is forced and awkward through every step. Even beyond that, there's an internal conflict that Hughes never addresses or even seems to recognise: this is a movie that is unmistakably for kids (the singular thrust of it seems to be wish fulfillment: "if I were home alone, I'd be just as resourceful and inventive as Kevin!". The familial-love material at the end feels horribly tacked-on, like Hughes desperately wanted a moral), with a subject that comes 100% from the mind of a parent. The only parts of that movie where the omnipresent sentimentality absolutely work are those involving Kate McAllister's desperation, and then mostly because Catherine O'Hara is such a rock-solid class act and refuses to let the flimsy size of her part keep her down. Also because she shares a couple of key scenes in the third act with fellow SCTV alum John Candy, and between the two of them they generate more and better comedy than anything that Columbus was able to drag out of endless shots of Macaulay Culkin (who was far better in Hughes's Uncle Buck the year before) running about and screaming and flailing about.

On the other hand: John Williams's score is one of the better things he did for a filmmaker not named "Spielberg" or "Lucas", and the film captures the feeling of a North Shore Christmas as well as any movie that I have ever seen. And no matter how hard Columbus tries to make him terrible, Culkin has a natural child's charisma that serves him well. These compensations are not nearly enough to make Home Alone enjoyable, but they are certainly enough to make it endurable.

9 comments:

Lucas said...

The attempted robbery (or whatever) only lasts 20 minutes?? Damn, I haven't seen this for at least ten years but I would've sworn the central idea of this movie was "boy tortures robbers." I appear to have forgotten literally everything else that happened in it.

Trish said...

I recall one critic describing this film as a deeply uncomfortable live-action remake of Tex Avery's "One Ham's Family" with weird sappy moments, and that just about nails it.

Densua said...

I don't care what you say, Big Internet Critic! I treasure this movie. To deny it now just because I understand grown-up words like 'pandering' would be pretending it did not play an intrinsic part in creating the child-that-became-the-woman. I remember little of Home Alone's plot, but I remember laughing hard as hell. I've been in a fruitless search for that massive, paralysing belly-laugh ever since.

StephenM said...

Yeah, I always loved this movie--and its sequal, which is basically the exact same movie but in New York and with Tim Curry--as a kid. I'm not gonna try to argue for it as a really good movie, but I'm not sure why imagining it as a Tom and Jerry-style cartoon is a bad thing. I always thought it was hilarious. And you've at least got to give props to the people who thought up all the traps for the robbers because those were ingenious.

Tim said...

Lucas- I made a point of timing it. Starts at the 75 minute mark, and it's over by 95 minutes. I think it might partially be that those 20 minutes were heavily over-emphasised in the marketing, in 1990 and ever since.

Trish- if you happen to know who that critic was, they are now my hero.

Densua & Stephen- De gustibus non est disputandum and all that. I perhaps should have also pointed out that I generally dislike Tom & Jerry, almost as much as the Warner's Tweety Bird shorts. But by no means do I mean to invalidate anybody's childhood, the way I kind of actually did in my Lion King review.

Rebecca said...

The robbery may seem longer because they don't just magically show up at the end for no reason. They spend the whole movie trying to figure out if there are people there or not. There's the earlier bits with the Christmas party (Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree? Jingle Bell Rock? I don't remember) and also using the gangster movie as grownup voices. But I'll easily believe that the battle when they are in the house is 20 minutes. I actually thought it was shorter.

polynomialpal said...

This movie gets a free pass as far as I'm concerned for being Christmassy. That score, the excellent selection of songs on the soundtrack and the plethora of Christmas trees and lights and snow is enough to make me a very happy movie-goer at a certain time of the year. Last Christmas my friends and I had a Christmas movie night and this was what we watched and everybody thought it was the best movie ever. We're all intelligent people but we're not very objective when we're in the Christmas spirit.

I removed my comment above because for some reason I stopped mid-sentence and published it early. I might have been over-excited by the captcha.

Daniel Silberberg said...

You're not alone, Tim. I hated it as a kid. I usually put that down to an underdeveloped sense of schadenfreude.

CalogeroMiraMusic said...

The soundtrack by John Williams for "Home Alone", starring Macaulay Culkin, is excellent.