Home Alone: A Great Christmas Movie, or the Greatest?

January 1, 2018

 

Home Alone – written by John Hughes, directed by Chris Columbus, and starring erstwhile wunderkind Macaulay Culkin – was released in theaters in 1990. I am 32 years old. In the subsequent 27 years since its release, I have seen this movie at least 100 times. I made my parents, my friends’ parents (along with my friends), and even a couple of babysitters take me to see it in theaters at least seven times. After it came out on VHS in 1991, I watched it at least once a month for the next six years. Sometimes I would watch it, rewind it, and watch it again immediately. I brought it with me on play dates to watch with more friends. I brought it with me to various relatives’ houses to watch while my parents were catching up with said various relatives. It didn’t matter what time of year it was: as far as I was concerned it was Home Alone time. I watched it so many times that I memorized the dialogue. Hell, I watched it so many times that inadvertently my parents memorized the dialogue. To this day, all it takes for my dad and me to crack each other up is to quote Angela Goethals as Kevin’s older sister, “You’re what the French call ‘les incompetents.’” Or John Heard as Kevin’s father on the phone with the French police: “Est-ce IL Y A un perSON qui parle anglais LA?” Or to do a mangled countdown, a la Johnny in the fake gangster movie ‘Angels with Filthy Souls’ that Kevin keeps watching­: “One, two, TEN!” Or to impersonate Joe Pesci as Harry the Wet Bandit, realizing that Kevin was home alone: “Looks like we’re being scammed by a kindy-gardener.”

 

I could go on. But I won’t.

 

 

Around the time I turned twelve I got a grip, and reduced my Home Alone consumption to once a year, a few days before Xmas. I have continued the tradition to this day. In the past couple of years I’ve started ordering a cheese pizza for dinner, (even though I prefer toppings) and I drink Pepsi (even though I prefer Coke), just as Culkin’s Kevin McCallister prefers.  

 

Do I really need to summarize the plot? It seems unlikely that there are people in the world who have not seen this movie. It’s a part of the Xmas movie canon at this point along with It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, The Muppet Christmas Carol, (and I think now we have to include Love Actually in this mix as well).

 

But in case you have been living under a rock for the past three decades: the McCallister extended family leaves for a Christmas trip to Paris to visit an uncle. A snowstorm the night before the flight causes both a power outage and several downed telephone wires, resulting in a chaotic frenzy the morning of their flight, along with a terribly botched headcount of the kids; Kevin is left behind. Once the family realizes what has happened it’s too late. Kate, Kevin’s mother, then spends the rest of the film trying to get back home to Kevin.

 

 

In the meanwhile, Kevin figures out how to become somewhat self-sufficient in a way he has never had the opportunity to do so before as the youngest in the family: he learns how to do laundry, goes grocery shopping, decorates the house for the holidays, and gets over both his irrational fear of the scary unfinished basement of their house, and of his neighbor, Old Man Marley, a stoic elderly man who is rumored (falsely) to be a serial killer. Also in the meanwhile, Marv and Harry, a notorious burglar duo known as the Wet Bandits, have been casing houses in Kevin’s neighborhood to rob while everyone is out of town for the holidays. They have identified Kevin’s house as the jackpot, and even after they learn that Kevin is home alone, decide to rob the house anyway, assuming that the child will be too scared to do anything except let them get away with it. But of course, they seriously underestimate the kid’s moxie, as he rigs up a number of booby traps inside the house to thwart the thieves, and outsmarts them enough to call the cops and get them taken to prison. Kate arrives home the next day, and the rest of the family shows up shortly thereafter. Christmas has been saved, and no one needs to know what went down between Kevin and the Wet Bandits.

 

 

This movie made a huge impact on me when it first came out because I too, am the youngest in my family. There’s something extremely satisfying about seeing this little kid who is picked on by the rest of his cousins for being helpless, finding the wherewithal to be resourceful enough to protect his home from two burglars. A couple of years after the movie was released – when I still used to binge watch it with abandon – my family moved to the Chicago suburbs, not far from where Home Alone was filmed, and it was fun to be able to identify the locations in every scene. And the scene between Kevin and Old Man Marley in the church affected me deeply back then as well, as a meditation on the power of kindness and understanding. Old Man Marley doesn’t condescend to Kevin in their conversation, and as a result they are able to really see each other and help each other. Kevin learns a lesson about not being influenced by stupid rumors spread by his older siblings and how to be his own person, and Old Man Marley, moved by Kevin’s advice, reconnects with his estranged son.

 

There really is a lot of heavy stuff going on in this lighthearted children’s movie.

 

*

 

As much as I loved Home Alone as a child, revisiting it as an adult is a trip. Every year I watch it now I feel like I learn something new about the story. Here’s are ten things I have only realized about Home Alone in the past five years:

 

1) Kevin is only alone in the house for like three days. Somehow when I was little, it seemed like he was home alone for much longer. Maybe 10-15 days. I think now this misperception is because when I was little (the way Kevin is little) and alone with hours of unstructured time, the days just stretch. Especially when you have no idea what is going on.

 

2) Kevin legitimately thinks that he is to blame for his family vanishing, simply because he got mad at them the night before and wished they’d all go away. This is something I figured out only last year. I have no idea how this completely blew past me the first 99 times I watched this movie, but there you have it. It makes his determination to protect himself and his family home from Marv and Harry all the more heartbreaking. He believes that he is the only McCallister left.

 

3) A word for Old Man Marley: dude, I get that it sucks that all of the neighborhood kids are afraid of you, but you aren’t helping things by storming up to Kevin at the pharmacy and slamming your withered bandaged hand on the counter in front of him wordlessly. Seriously, you don’t see how that might be scary to a little kid? No wonder the little guy ran away without paying for his toothbrush.

 

4) Kevin doesn’t call the police to inform them that he knows Marv and Harry are coming to rob his house because he is afraid they are after him for shoplifting the toothbrush. See, Old Man Marley? You ruin everything, and you’re not even really a murderer!

 

 

5) Kevin is apparently a tactical military genius. He comes up with the plan to protect the house in ONE HOUR, including setting up all of the traps and microwaving his mac and cheese. Again, this is something I thought took much longer when I saw the movie as a kid. I thought I remembered that he had a couple of days to work this out. Nope, he does it in an hour. The kid is eight years old! What the hell?!

 

 

6) Marv and Harry are dumb AF. Like, unfathomably dumb. Dumb for being outsmarted by a child, but also dumb for trying to burgle a house with anyone home, kid or no kid. Also, kind of hilarious that they survived nails in their feet, a blowtorched head and a burned hand, paint cans in the face, smashing into a brick wall after Kevin cuts the rope attached to the tree house, and they are finally only done in by Old Man Marley, a frail, elderly man, showing up and smacking them with a 10 ounce metal shovel from Home Depot.

 

7) Also, one last word for Old Man Marley: dude, once you rescue Kevin from those idiots, why do you drop him off back at his house even though at this point it’s evident that no one else is home? You are such an irresponsible adult. I’m starting to wonder if this is why your son kept his family away from you for so long.

 

8) This movie could never happen today between the airport security theatrics we are all subjected to while flying post 9/11, and also smartphones.

 

9) The McCallisters are RICH. Holy cow. Giant house in Winnetka, Illinois? International travel for a family that big? Kate can just drop everything and start buying tickets back to the States without even thinking about the cost? Must be nice.

 

10) Kevin’s brother Buzz is a piece of shit. (Actually, I knew that back when I was a kid.)

 

*

 

 

I have maintained for years that this is the best Christmas movie ever made. I know, I know, It’s A Wonderful Life is the benchmark for this genre, and Gen X-ers are always happy to shout at me that A Christmas Story is far superior. (They are wrong. Shut up, Gen X-ers.) Home Alone has a brilliant soundtrack by John Williams, (and if you don’t believe me, take a listen and tell me that it’s not as good as Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and E.T.). It also has a killer cast: in addition to the aforementioned late, great, criminally underrated John Heard, there’s Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, and of course little Macaulay. We also have Kieran Culkin, (who might be the most successful Culkin at this point) as Fuller, the brilliant Catherine O’Hara as Kate McCallister, oh and also a random cameo by force of comedy nature (and also late great) John Candy, as a polka musician who drives Kate back to Chicago. And I think despite the extreme violence against the burglars being played for laughs, (which I remember the film being criticized for), it also achieves the right balance of Christmas schmaltz by showing the parallel story of Kevin growing up and connecting with the (evidently oblivious) Old Man Marley while his awful family realizes how hard they always are on him as they panic about his well-being. It’s heartwarming, it’s empowering, and also Kevin wrecks Buzz’ room, which he completely deserves because he’s a piece of shit.

 

I am grateful that this movie exists for those reasons, and also because to be frank, nostalgia can be overwhelming. To lean on a favorite Mad Men quote, nostalgia literally means, “the pain from an old wound, a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” All I have to do is hear the opening credits theme to Home Alone and I get goose bumps. I remember what it was like to be little, to feel the freedom to binge watch a Christmas movie in the middle of July and not care how weird people thought I was, to figure out which Dominick’s grocery store in my old neighborhood Kevin shops at because then I could talk my parents into going there too and buying me some frozen mac and cheese. I remember watching this movie with my parents, before I lost my mother to cancer when I turned twelve. I remember wishing I could be Kevin: smart enough and cool enough to outsmart a couple of adults who didn’t have my best interests at heart. While also full of enough grace to be able to forgive his family for this honestly unforgivable thing: being forgotten.

 

 

I only realized that John Hughes wrote this film when I was in college in film school, and once I did, it made complete sense to me that the man responsible for the Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller, and Sixteen Candles created this story. As Judd Nelson said during a tribute to Hughes after his 2010 death, Hughes “had a gift for treating young people not as children, but as developing adults.” While Kevin is decidedly younger than the teenage protagonists of most of Hughes’ work, this quintessentially Hughes-ian sensibility still comes through, and it’s what makes Kevin a compelling character for me to watch as an adult. Kevin begins to understand who he really is in this film, beyond just being the helpless youngest child everyone picks on, even though he’s a work in progress and has fits and starts along the way. I think more than anything, this is why the movie still holds up for me as I more definitively move away from being a young person. I am grateful for this film because it reminds me year after year in new ways that we are all works in progress, we are all sorting through who we can be in the world, and we are all figuring out just what we are capable of. And there will always come a day when it is time for us to rise to the occasion.

 

We can only hope that when that happens we won’t have to rig up a bunch of paint cans in the stairwell.

 

 

Reeya Banerjee

 

Reeya is a food & beverage cost accountant in the hospitality industry with a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can usually be seen playing the bass guitar at various Beacon Music Factory shows, or drinking IPA's at Dogwood in Beacon, NY.

 

 

 

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