Tuesday, December 09, 2014

80s Revisited: Home Alone

Home Alone (1990)
Directed by Chris Columbus; written and produced by John Hughes.

Every year, I see both complaints and professions of love for this movie on Facebook page, and after seeing it for the first time in, honestly, probably about 15 or 20 years, I have to confess: I quite enjoyed it.

I haven't seen Home Alone in years. I first saw it in the theater in 1990 with my Mom and my sister Jayne, and seeing it now, I've realized it's something of a time capsule. Let's be a hundred percent here: we carry our own experiences and baggages into whatever movies we see. It's dishonest to say that reviews are completely objective. Sometimes we love things because they remind us of a time, or a place, or a person. And sometimes we hate things because of that, too.

I'm not saying this as some kind of wishy-washy defense of a movie that I know a lot of people hate. I'm saying it because those esoteric reasons have a great deal to do with why I loved watching it again.

I remember when this came out and destroyed the box office. Number one movie for 12 straight weeks and, for a time, the third-highest grossing movie of all time. It spawned an entire genre that my wife once derisively nicknamed the "It's That Kid!" movie. And there was a hastily thrown together sequel that rather missed all of the elements that made this first movie work.

And I do think this movie works, even if it's totally convoluted. The movie has to work hard to put Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) in that house by himself. The whole family is over, and Kevin makes a scene at dinner on the night before everyone's leaving to spend Christmas in Paris. As punishment, Kevin is sent to bed early in the attic bedroom (his bed has gone to the visiting aunt and uncle), and ends up alone up there. A wind storm then knocks out the power and the phones, so no one wakes up on time. In the rush to get to the airport, a neighbor kid is accidentally counted, no one wakes up Kevin, and the kid wakes up to an empty house. Having wished his family gone forever, he thinks his wish came true. And meanwhile, a couple of crooks (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) are robbing the homes of vacationing families, and Kevin won't go to the cops because, in a panic, he accidentally stole a toothbrush and he thinks the cops are after him. Kid logic.

So, no, it's not a plausible movie, something a lot of critics got really annoyed about at the time. Viewing it nearly 25 years later, that doesn't count against it for me. Its heart is so firmly rooted in a kind of 1940s Christmas movie where emotional manipulation it the point and plausibility is, at best, a tertiary concern. It takes place in a fantasy version of reality that little kids sometimes think and maybe wish is true. But that fantasy version of reality feels right, because I can remember feeling like the world was the simple place this movie insists it is. I was 14 when this movie came out, and it felt right to me that, yeah, when I was 7 I would have done what Kevin does: go through everyone's stuff, watch forbidden movies, and eat elaborate desserts.

The movie's slapstick is balanced by Kevin's growing anxiousness to have his family back and his increasing guilt at them not being there, which he assumes is a Christmas wish come true and which he comes to regret making. I don't want to say it's emotionally sincere, exactly, but, like George Costanza, the old man gets to me. I like the bits about family and about fear and grudges and regret. After all of that, the Three Stooges slapstick of Kevin's elaborate confrontation with the robbers and the emotional outpouring of the ending are a catharsis. It all works. It's the kind of movie where I know my strings are being pulled, but they're being pulled in such a way that I don't mind. You can see the gears, but they add up to a nice effect and it's not done in a smug or soulless way (like in the sequel), so who cares?

But the really esoteric reason I have affection for this movie is the time in my life it comes from. Christmas 1990 was one of the worst times in my life. It was my freshman year of high school, we had recently moved out of the house I grew up in, and my parents had gotten divorced a year earlier. My Mom took my sister and I to see this at a sneak preview the week before its general release. There's nothing better than seeing a movie at a packed house with an audience who is really enjoying what they're watching. And my Mom loved it so much. It really came at a time when she needed to laugh as hard as she did. To have something to watch as a family and get such a good time out of was something we desperately needed to have that Christmas. And we did.

As a result, Home Alone has become an essential Christmas movie for Mom. We bought it for her on VHS the next Christmas. And she always loved it, even as I became a jaded and cynical teenager and was "too cool" for it. It took me until well into adulthood to realize that the reason she loved that movie so much was probably that it showed a family at Christmas who fought and took each other for granted and made gigantic mistakes, but who were reunited and were just grateful to be together. It was the kind of message she needed at a time when she was feeling guilty, feeling like a failure, because her life had changed so quickly and her children were so unhappy.

So, yeah, it's a silly movie. I know there are people who are annoyed by it. But I smile and I laugh and I cry and I think of my Mom and of how we survived a really terrible time in our lives, and the question of how convoluted and implausible the movie is becomes moot because of what it makes me feel.


Nathan said...

I would have to agree with your assessment of the movie making no sense but still working. My wife and I watch it every year, and quote parts of it pretty regularly. Keep the change, ya filthy animal.

SamuraiFrog said...

Ha! My Mom used to say that a lot. Also, without even thinking about it, the other day I said to my wife "Ah, a lovely cheese pizza just for me." Weird.

Roger Owen Green said...

I liked this movie in the theater, and it holds u, at least the couple times I've seen it subsequently, which was probably most recently 5 or 6 years ago. I wonder if the Daughter would like it?