'Getting Even': Macaulay Culkin is home, but this time not alone

June 17, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Getting Even With Dad" is less a movie than a movie review. By that I mean, it's fundamentally an act of analysis, not drama. It applies rigorous thought to the success of "Home Alone," reduces that success to an equation, and codifies it. The only difference: Instead of writing a 12-inch review, the producers have made a film that will probably earn $60 million.

It understands that "Home" had but a single idea, but that it's a great idea. It's the idea of the empowered child, by which, magically, the laws of society are overturned and a little boy -- it has to be Macaulay Culkin -- achieves magic leverage and rearranges reality to suit his whim.

That's it, really, with minor wrinkles to set up the equation at the beginning and take it down at the end and not a lot in between. And Culkin is the perfect vessel for such an enterprise. He's not an actor in any real meaning of that word -- he has no range and only one or two expressions on his cute little face -- but a sort of kewpie doll who by his very blankness is the perfect sponge to absorb the metaphysical yearnings of a vast sub-teen audience.

In this variation, Culkin is Timmy, the neglected son of Ray (a pony-tailed Ted Danson), a small-time San Francisco crook and pastry chef. Tim, of course, is deposited on Ray's doorstep just ++ as Ray has set up his one big job with the assistance of two colorfully cartoonish morons (Saul Rubinek and Gailard Sartain, doing variations on the Joe Pesci/Daniel Stern roles). Ray, mean-spirited as well as petty and unevolved, regards this event as a terrible intrusion. His first response is to completely ignore the boy, who remains chipper in the face of the rejection. A few minutes is spent establishing what a rotten dad Ray is.

The gang pulls off the job -- stealing $1.5 million worth of rare coins from a couple of equally bumbling guards -- but the clever little boy knows what's going on, and himself swipes the coins from a hiding place. Now holding the coins as ransom, he demands what he cannot otherwise have: the attention, love and respect of his father and the ritual humiliation of the two cohorts.

What little dramatic tension exists is supplied by a counterplot in which police detective Glenne Headly tries to infiltrate the gang that couldn't hug straight and bring it down, alas falling in love with Danson in the process. As one might suppose from the foregoing, "Getting Even With Dad" can't claim naturalism as its strong suit.

For the majority of its running time, the father-son relationship is reversed. The boy is literally father to the man, the power figure. The dad must scurry about to please him. At the same time, the boy tyrannizes the two assistant thugs in broadly conceived ways derived entirely from "Home Alone." They are always getting knocked around or throwing up, exactly the sort of humiliations a small boy fears most and would most like to see inflicted on adults. Judging from the squeals of bliss this produced from a largely child-filled audience, the idea is apt to prove quite popular.

As drama, of course, it's completely unconvincing. As sociology, there's something smarmy about it and the way it forces the boy to barter for what should be his by rights, his father's love. And, of course, it traffics in the silliest of happy-ending conventions, by which a hopelessly dysfunctional family has been made whole and healthy again in a mere 87 minutes.

The cast is uniformly professional, particularly Danson, who plays the role straight and manages to make conversion from small-time punk to dad-of-the-year without unduly straining credulity. Headly, a gifted performer, is wasted in a role that could have been played by any routine one-season TV co-star. Culkin is -- well, Culkin is Culkin, cute and malleable, absolutely empty, absolutely precious, absolutely irritating.

"Getting Even With Dad"

Starring Macaulay Culkin and Ted Danson

Directed by Howard Deutch

Released by MGM

PG

**

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