'Home Alone': a brilliant film for about 10 minutes

November 16, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Home Alone'

Starring Macaulay Culkin and Joe Pesci.

Directed by Chris Columbus.

Released by 20th Century Fox.

Rated PG. Imagine Alfalfa starring in a Disney remake of that classic of psychotic territoriality, Sam Peckinpah's ultra-violent "Straw Dogs," and you've got a fair approximation of "Home Alone."

In Peckinpah's bleak vision of the human condition, a mild liberal wimp hiding from reality on a Cornish farm finally freaked when some British rednecks tried to break into his house: Using everything from a bear trap to a shotgun to boiling water, he waged total war and snuffed them all.

In this version, a cute tyke played by Macaulay Culkin is accidentally left home over Christmas vacation, when the house is assailed by two less-than-brilliant thieves. But rather than play it for horror as the great Peckinpah did in his film, the writer-producer John Hughes and the director Chris Columbus play it for very mild suburban slapstick.

The movie has one sustained passage of brilliance which the previews and the TV ads make you think lasts an hour and a half; it lasts about 10 minutes. This is the assault itself, when the doubly moronic Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern walk into the clever and mean-spirited mesh of booby traps the boy has sprung on them.

Columbus keeps it a long way from horror, believe me. The humor is of the pratfall variety. Columbus loves to watch the dumb look of hopeless recognition that falls across the eyes of each of the victims before they get clobbered.

In truth, there is an unsettlingly mean current running through it. The injuries aren't just the usual Willie-thumps-Willie of the movies; instead, they've been conceived for maximum sense of squeamishness. Feet are involved frequently, and one scene where the barefoot Daniel Stern plants his sole on a strategically emplaced roofing nail may have you cringing from the knees upward.

But it's still quite funny. Columbus has put his stunts together neatly and Stern and Pesci manage to be threatening enough to enable you to enjoy their humiliation without being threatening enough to scare you. They're housebreakers as clowns, and never for a second do you believe they could or would slay the child; thus the whole drama plays in a kind of enchanted forest zone.

And Culkin is a major find. He was one of the children in Hughes' "Uncle Buck" of last year, here promoted to major movie star. He's wonderful. He doesn't possess a shred of that horrid professional child actor's aplomb; he doesn't act like a 43-year-old tax accountant or a little Ethel Merman ready to belt 'em out. He's all boy, vulnerable, captivating and exceptionally charming.

Alas, the movie around him is not captivating or exceptionally charming -- but it is vulnerable. It takes some doing to set up a scenario in which parents would forget one of their children, and "Home Alone" labors mightily. For the record, here's the gag: The McCallisters, a prosperous and large suburban Chicago family, are heading to Paris over Christmas vacation; one of dad's brothers, with his large, prosperous family, is staying with them also and will be making the flight. On the night before the whole tribe -- four adults, 15 kids -- is to leave for the airport, a power shortage knocks out the alarm clocks. Everybody oversleeps. In the chaos of the last-second rush, no one remembers that the bad boy Kevin has been ordered to sleep in the attic as a disciplinary measure.

It's marginally believable. What is wholly unbelievable is the contempt with which Kevin is treated by brother and sister, parent and uncle. If my brother called my son a "jerk" for accidentally spilling some milk on some pizza, I'd kick his butt out of the house in less than three seconds; in this big, unreal family circus it's standard operating procedure.

Moreover, what's in the movie's other half -- chronicling the guilty parents' discovery and mom Catherine O'Hara's desperate attempt to return home -- is dead on arrival. Dead as in not funny, not illuminating, not interesting, not ironic. Just dead. When the wasted O'Hara ends up riding in the back of a truck with a polka band fronted by avuncular John Candy, it's still dead! Nothing, no laughs, no interest, boring time waste.

But those glorious 10 minutes, how they sing!

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