Do Over: Home Alone
Macaulay Culkin tends to pop up in the news these days, looking a little pale and thin while assorted journalists and ‘sources close to the child star’ worry about his well-being. Which is strange. Because Macaulay Culkin, as we all know, is a lovable eight-year-old.
It’s cruel to refuse to see a child star as anything beyond the age at which we grew to know and love them. Cruel, and probably the source of many of grown up Macaulay’s problems. But this is how we can’t help but think of him – as bright-eyed, blonde little Kevin McCallister with the quick tongue and the dynamite taste in winter warmers (hat AND mittens-through-the-coat-sleeves? Yes please!).
It’s tough to believe that Home Alone has been on the winter schedule for over 20 years now, but it has. The 1990 John Hughes classic which introduced us to the McCallisters, was, as of 2009, the highest grossing comedy of all time. And deservedly so. Though it’s a children’s film at heart, it is so perfectly crafted that grown ups would be hard-pressed to find fault with it and so with its lavish Christmas decor, inimitable humour and heartwarming hero it has become a seasonal classic. The movie, like its star, has been rendered timeless by the sheer force of will of every child who has ever mouthed along to ‘Keep the change ya filthy animal’ and wished that their Christmas was a tour-de-force of macaroni cheese, delicious cheese pizza, and fighting off robbers.
In keeping with the time-honoured trajectory of Christmas movies, Home Alone threatens seasonal disaster, pulls us back from the brink, and reminds us of the feelgoods of a loving family. In short, it places everything we like to idealise as ‘Christmas’ in glorious Technicolor and shows us what Christmas would be like if were eight, and brave, and well-to-do…
We all know the basic story. Kid gets left behind when his family go to France for Christmas, robbers case the joint, kid fights off the bad guys, family comes home and everyone makes merry. But the devil is in the detail, and it’s the nuanced little twists and turns in Home Alone that give it a special place in our hearts.
‘Kevin, if Uncle Frank says no, then it must be really bad…’
Perhaps one of the most well-known scores in cinematic history gently tinkles over the opening graphic of a little square house. We open in an upper-class Chicago neighbourhood in the beautiful home of Peter and Kate McCallister at 671 Lincoln Boulevard. Kids run around the place, unchecked. Adults pack things. Eight-year-old Kevin complains to his mother about a movie he’s not allowed to watch. ‘Kevin,’ says Kate McCallister, ‘if Uncle Frank says no, it must be really bad.’ Uncle Frank has to be one of the most fully-realised old grumps ever to grace a screen. Tight with money, lacking in social graces and a general scowling presence, Home Alone just wouldn’t be the same without him.
‘Pack my suitcase?!’
It’s Uncle Frank’s wife, Aunt Leslie, who sets Kevin’s world in ‘unravel’ mode when she scoots him out of his parents’ bedroom with a casual ‘Kevin, go pack your suitcase’. Nonchalantly plopping that kind of responsibility in anyone’s lap would upset them. Nobody likes packing. But it’s all the worse for Kevin, who’s one of the younger kids, and completely unused to life admin tasks like packing. Older siblings jeer, uttering memorable Home Alone lines like ‘Kevin, you’re such a disease’ and ‘you’re what the French call les incompetents‘. There lies the beauty of a Hughes film. The insults are innocent enough for a children’s movie but they bite just enough too, and ‘les incompetents’ shows Lynnie’s burgeoning teenage superiority – it’s the kind of line that makes a kid feel smug in the moment and like a complete eejit every time their older self reflects on it. Hughes got that. Home Alone shows his innate understanding of what it is to grow up just like all his ’80s efforts which came before it.
‘When I grow up, I’m living alone!’
Pissed off at his family, our hero Kev does what we’ve probably all done in the awkward-growing-into-ourselves years. Jumping up and down on the upstairs landing he yells, ‘When I grow up, I’m living alone! Y’hear me? I’m living alone!’
Large families can be claustrophobic. Everyone feels out of step with their surrounds at one time or another. It’s more pronounced in the awkward, kid years. Family being that thing that you’re born into without a say or bus fare out, it’s natural to have friction with them and so every thud of Kevin’s feet against the landing resonates somewhere around your abdomen and makes you reach for another Quality Street with which to eat your feelings. Home Alone is not just a film centred around a child, but a film centred around the experience of childhood, and one so sharply observed that it reminds you of your own stumble-gaited negotiation through the world when you were a nipper.
‘Check it out, old man Marley…’
Like in every family, Home Alone has the requisite teller-of-a-good-yarn. For the McCallisters, it’s Buzz. The oldest of Peter and Kate McCallister’s kids, he’s an obnoxious redhead who, to be honest, could do with a bit more discipline. When Kate McCallister at one point in the film utters ‘what kind of mother am I?’ in relation to Kevin, we instantly shoot down any bad parenting ideas she has about herself. The unfolding events don’t represent bad parenting… it’s a plot device Kate, and we forgive you. And yet, spend too long thinking about Buzz and you’ll conclude: jeez, Kate, Peter, give that fella a clip around the ear and stop having the wool pulled over your eyes.
Nonetheless, Buzz and his loudmouth ways serve their purpose. It’s Buzz who utters ‘Hey check it out, it’s old man Marley…’ before leading his siblings and cousins to the window to spy on an old man out salting the sidewalk. Buzz tells them a creepy tale about Marley murdering his family and grinding the bones of his victims to make ‘salt’ for the paths. (Let’s not dwell on what kind of eyes in the back of his head Buzz needed in order to guess who and what was outside the window before he looked.)
‘Mom, does Santa Claus have to go through customs?’
Filled with ensemble scenes, lines said over one another and general bustle, it’s almost impossible to catch all of the little gems first time around, making Home Alone a prime candidate for repeated viewings. ‘Mom, does Santa Claus have to go through customs?’, is uttered as everyone converges on the kitchen for pizza. Meanwhile, the guy from Little Nero’s waits in the hall for payment, standing next to none other than resident bad guy Harry, played by Joe Pesci. Masquerading as a police officer, he questions the McCallister’s about their security system and whether they’re going away for the holidays. Though it’s a simple plot in terms of how grand the thieves’ plan is and how forthcoming their targets are, it knits together effortlessly. From the beginning Kevin’s not getting along with his folks and the bad guys are staking out the house. Nothing parachutes in at the last second, instead, like the best thrillers, crimes and gangster movies, our way is paved with subtle references and breadcrumbs throughout each scene.
‘Fuller, go easy on the Pepsi…’
But despite its crime-movie plot precision, Home Alone is firmly placed in the comedy category. Though the obvious humour is the latter half slapstick as Kevin puts thieves Harry and Marv through his house of horrors, there are plenty of one-liners, witticisms and moments that just make sense if you happen to come from a huge family. In essence, the target audience for every sibling-filled scene is ‘Irish people’. Some of the best are Fuller’s knowing smile as someone yells ‘Fuller, go easy on the Pepsi’ at Disney’s best-known bedwetter and the moment when all hell breaks loose as Buzz pretends to barf up Kevin’s cheese pizza – leading Kevin to upset the drinks on the table and Fuller to face mortal peril in the form of a chair to the face…
‘The third floor? It’s scary up there…’
As punishment for giving cheek, which the eight-year-old in all of us can relate to, Kevin is sent to third floor. ‘I don’t want to see you for the rest of the night!’ says Kate, to which Kevin responds ‘I don’t want to see you again for the rest of my whole life!’ before trudging up the stairs to bed.
‘We slept in!’
We cut to the next morning and the inevitable pain point that we’ve all been through at some stage in our lives. It’s one thing to sleep in, it’s another to sleep in and have to make a dash to the airport in the middle of tinsel season. Inevitable, really, that something would be overlooked…
‘Mom? Dad? Where are you guys?’
Kevin trudges down from the third floor to discover that he’s alone in the house. Initially thinking it’s a practical joke, he yells for his everyone to come out but then realisation dawns. It’s in this moment that the character adds a dimension of childlike tenderness to his charm. We’ve seen him be funny, we’ve seen him awkwardly negotiate being surrounded by older kids all the time, we’ve seen him answer back, but then he says…
‘I made my family disappear!’
Even though he’s immediately alive with mischief, there’s still that eight-year-old naivety to be adored in the very idea that he thinks a hasty retort to his mother could really lead to magically making his family disappear. At points its barely memorable that while Kate McCallister is trying to make her way home and Kevin is fending off the bad guys, Kevin really thinks that he may never see his family again and that he’s been left alone to fend for himself.
‘No clothes on anybody – sickening!’
Still and all, we don’t feel sorry for the little tyke for too long as he uses his new-found freedom to get on with the business of what we, as children, always thought we’d do once we became grown up… playing with firecrackers, watching unsuitable films, and eating junk for every meal.
Meantime, on the flight to Paris, Kate suddenly realises what she forgot, screaming, ‘Kevin!’, questioning what kind of mother she is and going into meltdown as Leslie pats her hand and Uncle Frank comments ‘Horrible, just horrible… if it makes you feel any better, I forgot my reading glasses.’
‘Watch where you’re going, Kid…’
Back in Chicago, Kevin goes out shopping and encounters none other than The Wet Bandits, who slowly realise that they’re getting played by a kid and plan to go ahead with their heist. Kevin attempts to ward them off with simple (though to be fair, ingenious) ploys like faking a party at his house complete with a moving cast of characters made up of, amongst other things, a Michael Jordan cutout stuck to an electric train set and a mannequin spinning on a gramophone.
‘This is Christmas! The season of perpetual hope! And I don’t care if I have to get out on your runway and hitchhike. If it costs me everything I own, if I have to sell my soul to the devil himself, I am going to get home to my son.’
In Scranton, Pennsylvania, Kate McCallister loses the rag at an airport check-in desk prompting the loveable John Candy to swoop in and save the day as a polka bum with a spare seat in the band’s van. The story goes that much of the dialogue between Catherine O’Hara (Kate) and Candy was improvised, but the real enjoyable part of this scene is watching the tiny scraps of conflict in Kate McCallister who 90% wants to get home to her son but still a leeetle 10% bit is still far too middle-class to be in the back of a van with a jobbing polka band. Which is mental of her. Because nothing looks like more craic than banging out Christmas tunes with a polka band in the back of a van on a roadtrip from Scranton to Chicago.
‘I’m old enough to know how it works, but I also know you work for ‘im…’
Kevin, too, is ready for his family to return, visiting Santa in one of the most elaborate grottos we’ve ever seen to announce that ‘Instead of presents this year, I just want my family back.’ Gulp.
‘Bless this highly nutritious macaroni and cheese dinner and the people who sold it on sale. Amen.’
And speaking of gulp moments – you haven’t known the tug of maternal concern until you’ve watched an eight-year-old prepare himself a meal for one, serve it up on white linen with candles and a napkin, say grace and then step away with resolve as the clock strikes eight and he goes all brave-little-soldier and gets ready to defend his house, thinking he’s been left all alone in the world…
All that being said – if your home ever needs to be defended, Kevin is your guy. Marv gets a pellet to the head, Harry has his hand burned on a doorknob and both slip and slide perilously on some strategically-iced steps before they’ve even gained entry to the house for the real games to begin. The ‘robbery’ only takes up a tiny twenty minutes of the 90 minute film, but once The Wet Bandits arrive to face Kevin, every moment of screentime counts. Inside the house, Marv gets a nail through the foot as he tries to climb up the basement stairs while Harry gets a blowtorch to the head. Attempting a different entryway, Marv steps onto Christmas baubles in his bare feet while Harry gets glued and feathered before both trip on a bunch of toy cars and finally come face to face with Kevin who hurtles two paint cans down the stairs at them. Maybe the best moment of all is the scream that escapes from Marv when Kevin throws Buzz’s tarantula on his face before making a quick escape toward the tree house. Never has there been a girly scream like it, and it comes coupled with the satisfaction of seeing the tarantula, seen scuttling around the house in various scenes after Kevin breaks his cage when he wrecks the shelves in Buzz’s room, finally meet with his motion picture destiny.
‘He’s calling the cops? From a tree house?!’
Things get a little dark towards the end. Harry and Marv corner Kevin and threaten to bite off his fingers and smash his face with an iron. Then just when it seems like this might not be The Heartwarming Christmas Movie That Could, Old Man Marley appears to clatter them both with shovels and take Kevin home.
‘Oh Kevin, I’m so sorry…’
Kevin’s hope-filled run around the house on Christmas morning would almost break your heart. He’s decorated, he’s hung up everyone’s stockings, he’s eagerly calling his Mom’s name because he believes that Santa will have sent her back… but he’s still home alone.
But wait! Before you turn back to the Quality Street to eat more feelings, Kate McCallister appears through the door just as wee Kevin is retreating up the stairs and mother and awesome kid are reunited. The rest of the family pile through the door to form a complete Christmas contingent and the signature John Williams score strikes up quietly in the background. If, at this point, you aren’t on a high after hurtling through a 90-minute rollercoaster of childlike joy and heartstring-tugging, well hell then we don’t even wanna know ya.