HOME ALONE (1990)

  • Director: Chris Columbus
  • Writer: John Hughes
  • Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Catherine O’Hara, Daniel Stern, John Heard, Roberts Blossom, Devin Ratray, Gerry Bamman, and John Candy
  • Accolades: 2 Oscar Nominations (Best Original Score, Best Original Song – “Somewhere in My Memory”)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Disney Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Welcome to Holidayfest ‘21, where we’ll spend the next week, leading up to Christmas, on seven holiday themed movies and TV specials. We’ll be examining some modern favorites and some older classics, along with some “anthropomorphized claymation raisins.” Which when it really comes down to it is what Christmas is all about.

Our opening feature is Home Alone, which I had seen before but not in multiple decades. I think, on reflection that, this article is going to end up sounding like I don’t like this movie much. The thing is, it’s perfectly fine. It’s a mostly sweet kids comedy with only some light bb gun action, where some bad guys get beat up by some booby traps, and a kid left at home takes the opportunity to eat a bunch of pizza and watch… old gangster movies? But as comedies go (and I realize this is heavily subjective), there isn’t that much in it that’s actually funny. Plus, you know, I would not be the first to say that the main character is, in fact, actually pretty terrible and useless, no matter how much the movie tries to tell us he has an arc where at the end he is no longer terrible and useless. All that changed is he made Joe Pesci slip on a toy car.

So that is what I mean when I say that, even though I think Home Alone is, you know, a perfectly fine way to spend a couple hours with your kids, I find it one of the more inexplicable mega-hits in the history of the movies. Some younger people today may not remember, but Home Alone was number one at the American box office for an unheard of 12 weeks straight over the winter of 1990-91. It held the title of the highest-earning live action comedy for a solid 20 years, before finally being passed by The Hangover in 2011. There have since been five separate sequels to this movie, and there are numerous recognizable moments to many (today we would call them “memes” even today). Then again, we live in a world where there’s a successful Karate Kid TV series, so who even knows.

Home Alone tells the story of six-year-old Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin), who lives in an enormous house in suburban Chicago with his parents (John Heard and the great Catherine O’Hara), along with numerous siblings. Just as his entire extended family, cousins and all, gets ready to fly to Paris for Christmas (the movie explains this once but honestly I never remember the actual justification for it), Kevin spills soda all over the passports because he doesn’t like any toppings on his pizza and is punished by being sent to the attic. In the chaos of the next morning, Kevin is left at home, which no one realizes until they are already on the plane. He, having wished that Santa would get rid of his family, wakes up to discover that this seems to actually have happened, and he has the house to himself.

When I first saw this movie as a kid I remember Kevin getting up to all sorts of “the house is empty” hijinks, but honestly that takes up like three minutes tops of this movie. The main plot is mostly about two robbers (Joe Pesci and his sidekick Daniel Stern), who are robbing many of the houses on Kevin’s rich suburban street while everyone is away from home for Christmas. Kevin at first tries to fool the robbers into believing that he is not actually home alone, using the shadows from various makeshift objects like a cut-out of Michael Jordan, but they eventually figure this out and he has to defend his house with an elaborate series of (very damaging) booby traps. The third act of Home Alone not only involves Pesci and Stern falling over a lot but also being successively set on fire, burned with irons, and tortured with poisonous spiders. It is frankly insane, but in… a fun way, I guess? This is intercut with scenes of O’Hara’s mom character frantically trying to get home through a series of yelly airport conversations (one French flight attendant is very randomly played by a young Hope Davis). She eventually meets “Gus Polinski, the Polka King” (John Candy), who drives her the rest of the way in his band’s van. Then she arrives home like five minutes ahead of her husband and the rest of the family, meaning her entire storyline involves her panicking and yelling at a bunch of service workers when she should have just waited for the next flight back like her husband. So heartwarming, you guys.

In some ways Home Alone feels almost endearing today for entirely different reasons. For one thing, out of all modern movie plots, few would be torpedoed harder by the existence of cell phones. There was yet another ostensible sequel that came out this year (Home Sweet Home Alone, currently on Disney Plus), and I read a description of the  plot to try and figure out how this would happen in a world with cell phones, and I honestly remain confused (I did learn that Aisling Bea, of all people, plays the mom in that one). Beyond that, there are a couple of sequences where Catherine O’Hara desperately tries to convince the bored local police that her son has been left home alone, and they seem to believe her but also seem genuinely confused as to why this is a problem. Today child protective services would be called in after about thirty seconds, and also Catherine O’Hara would probably be arrested for child endangerment.

Home Alone made its young star Culkin into the massive star of the moment, and he is quite good in this as far as little kid actors go. However, with the possible exception of this movie’s direct sequel (Home Alone 2: Lost in New York), he never really had anything approaching this level of box office success again, nor did Culkin seem to thrive in the spotlight. After a much-publicized court case intended to keep the hands of various relatives off of his trust fund, Culkin retired from acting in 1994 (shortly after appearing in The Pagemaster and Richie Rich) in order to attempt to have a “normal life.” He has since gradually returned to the public eye in smaller acting roles and general celebrity status as an adult. In 2018, he held a fan poll on his website to determine what his new middle name should be, with the winning entry turning to be “Macaulay Culkin.” Culkin went through with it and his actual current legal name is “Macaulay Macaulay Culkin Culkin.” His August 2020 tweet, “Hey guys, want to feel old? I’m 40. You’re welcome.” is currently listed as the tenth most liked tweet of all time.

Another career made by Home Alone has been that of director Chris Columbus, who up until this time had primarily been known as a screenwriter (his prior screenplay credits included Gremlins, another movie set on Christmas that’s not always considered a “Christmas movie,” and The Goonies). The success of the movie established Columbus as a reliable blockbuster director, especially of movies involving kids. He would have more hits through the 1990s, especially Mrs. Doubtfire, before being hired to direct the first two films of the Harry Potter franchise. The film also heralded a career renaissance for screenwriter John Hughes, whose had directed some of the most beloved teen comedies of the 1980s but had suffered a series of flops before the success of Home Alone. Hughes spent the 90s working exclusively as a screenwriter, often on madcap little-kid movies like Beethoven (the one with the giant dog) and Flubber (the one with Robin Williams).

Home Alone was so popular with its target demographic that a non-insignificant portion of the population can still almost recite it scene for scene. It is likely that more people alive today have seen the fake gangster movie that appears repeatedly in this movie, titled Angels with Filthy Souls, than have seen any of the actual gangster movies it is making fun of. Watching it today without any particular past attachment to it, I found that it is better than it has any right to be based on this premise, mostly due to the efforts of a cast and crew most of whom seem to good for their material here. John Williams wrote the score for this movie, for pete’s sake! But if it hadn’t been the biggest hit of its year, would anyone watching it today really think it was anything special? This seems unlikely to me.

3 thoughts on “HOME ALONE (1990)

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