John Hughes’s best-loved films about families were hardly family films.
They were funny, often dark and yet sometimes beautifully heartwarming films about some seriously screwed-up people.
From the Griswolds to Uncle Buck, from the Buellers to the McCallisters, from the Bakers to the (mostly unseen) parents in “The Breakfast Club,” various members of these Chicago suburban families were often so neglectful or callous or oblivious to one another, they put the “diss” in dysfunctional.
In “Sixteen Candles,” Samantha Baker’s entire family — mom, dad, siblings, grandparents — forgets it’s her 16th birthday.
In “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” Clark Griswold risks his family’s safety on a cross-country trip, accidentally kills Aunt Edna’s dog, skinny-dips with a temptress, robs a hotel and ties Aunt Edna’s body to the roof of the car and dumps her at her son’s back door.
Ferris Bueller had loving parents, but they were utter dupes. (And don’t even get me started on Cameron’s situation.) Uncle Buck didn’t even know his brother’s kids until he was pressed into temporary guardian duties. Judging by the monologues delivered by the high schoolers serving Saturday detention in “The Breakfast Club,” their parents ranged from high-pressure to criminally abusive.
And then there are the McCallisters, the boisterous and cheerfully obnoxious family living in that Christmas-card perfect mansion in Winnetka. The McCallisters, who are in such a rush to get to the airport for a family trip, they somehow manage to forget one important item: youngest son Kevin.
(And they lose him AGAIN in “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” Somebody call the Department of Children and Family Services!)
Written and produced by Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, released in mid-November of 1990, “Home Alone” was a monster hit back in the days when a movie could enjoy an eight-week run at No. 1 and this year marks its 25th anniversary as a perennial Thanksgiving and early December home-viewing favorite.
Does it “hold up,” as we like to say about touchstone movies from generations past?
Well, the technology of today would have made it infinitely easier for Kevin and his family to reconnect, thus putting an end to the story before it really got started — but what with the logic-defying plot and the dark and sometimes cheerfully violent turns the plot takes, “Home Alone” wasn’t much grounded in reality in the first place. It’s a live-action Fractured Fairy Tale about a precocious, borderline bratty kid who realizes his entire family is gone, is frightened for about five seconds, and then looks straight into the camera, grins devilishly and says, “I made my family disappear!”
Next thing we know Kevin is running around the empty house, arms flailing in exuberance, like a kid overdosing on 10 bowls of Frosted Flakes.
Macaulay Culkin steals the movie as Kevin. He’s a little ham and there’s not a whole lot of nuance in the performance — but there’s no denying the infectious charm in iconic moments, i.e., when Kevin slaps on some aftershave and mimics Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” or when he lets loose an even louder scream when confronted on the streets by Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), a.k.a. “The Wet Bandits.”
Much of the second half of the film is about Kevin rigging ingenious booby traps to fend off the Wet Bandits in violent slapstick style that’s a little bit Three Stooges, a little bit Looney Tunes and a little bit — well, I’m certainly not the first to acknowledge the similarities to Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs.” (See Alan Siegel’s excellent piece on Slate, which features an interview with production designer John Muto, who reveals, “I kept telling people we were doing a kids’ version of ‘Straw Dogs.’ ”)
To be sure, the gags involving paint cans to the head, a foot stepping on an impossibly long nail, a blowtorch, etc., etc., are cringe-inducing — but Pesci and Stern are as resilient as Wile E. Coyote, and their comic reactions are so over the top they might as well be winking at the camera to reassure us no character actors were harmed in the making of this movie.
Mitigating the violent set pieces are two legitimately touching subplots: the tireless effort by Kevin’s mother Kate (the wonderful Catherine O’Hara) to get back home to her youngest child, and Kevin learning the surprising truth about next-door neighbor Marley (nice Dickensian reference!), the ghostly and scary old man who turns out to be something very different.
The score by John Williams is holiday-perfect. The supporting cast is excellent — notably Roberts Blossom as Old Man Marley and of course the great John Candy as Gus Polinski, the Polka King of the Midwest (maybe he’s related to Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago).
Whether you were an only child, the oldest, a middle kid or the put-upon, tagalong, youngest child, you probably had some moments when you felt like the Kevin of the family, AND some moments when you felt Home Alone, even if you weren’t literally home alone.
John Hughes knew how to tap into those universal feelings.
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