The generational appeal of Home Alone

The Generational Appeal of Home Alone

Some movies are like one-night stands. They’re good for just that single occasion and nothing after that. You could try watching them a second time but the magic just isn’t there. But not Home Alone. After well over a decade, I took the time to rewatch Macaulay Culkin’s 1990 classic while experiencing the Christmas blues. Unsurprisingly, it’s still amazing.  

Maybe a sexual analogy wasn’t the best way to describe my appreciation for a children’s movie classic. In fact, it’s highly inappropriate. Still, the point remains that Home Alone is good in the ways I remember it being good, and still better in entirely new ways. It’s good for a two or three-night stand. Or a decades-long stand, if you will.  

Why I liked it as a child (if I remember correctly)

Movies have an immense capacity to invoke empathy. As a kid, I definitely felt for Kevin in the opening 10 minutes when his entire family derides him as a troublemaker. All he wants is some help packing his suitcase and he receives verbal abuse from all quarters. He’s called helpless and incompetent, and a fight with his elder brother Buzz at dinner earns him the label of “little jerk” from his uncle Frank. He really isn’t a jerk. He’s just being provoked. Instantly, any kid can relate to the feeling of not being understood by their family and relatives, so we begin to care about this kid. We care about Kevin McCallister. Watching the film in 2020, I still felt the same way. Maybe my emotional growth stalled years ago for me to still feel the same, or maybe that scene is meant to infuriate us. Kevin’s the hero of the story after all, and we need to be on his side, even when he says he wishes he had a different family. We’ve all been there.

So when his family forgets him on their way to the airport, thanks to his mother grounding him in the attic, it’s a welcome change. He’s rid of a family that largely doesn’t care for him, or so it seems early on in the film. And as a child, this entire situation is rather perfect. We can all remember days without parental or adult supervision, and that’s what Kevin has for the foreseeable future. The freedom to do whatever he likes, whenever he likes. Shave his imaginary beard? Check.  Splash some aftershave? Check. Go to the supermarket and get anything he wants? Check. The world is seemingly his oyster, mostly because his family isn’t around, so cheers to that.

However, the film largely triumphs by elevating Kevin from an eight-year-old kid to a crime-fighting hero. Kevin represents a group of people who are largely helpless and dependent, children in other words. He is the quintessential underdog. If he were to come up against two burglars, Harry and Marv in this instance, he should fail by all accounts. He’s physically weaker, and we assume it’s the same intellectually. I mean, his brain’s not even fully developed. He’s home alone, and he’s afraid of things that most kids should normally find scary. The basement for example. How in the world can this kid fend off two criminals, let alone one?

That’s precisely why the film is so brilliant. He does exactly that. It turns out that we underestimate the kid and overestimate the skills and abilities of the thieves. Using the genius of a minor’s mind, Kevin concocts schemes you might see in a Tom & Jerry sketch to thwart the attackers. Slippery floors. Scorching hot door handles. Swinging paint buckets. Everything works to perfection. As a child, these slapstick moments are gold mines, creating laughter devoid of sadism (I hope).

By crossing off two things at the top of a child’s bucket list, Chris Columbus creates some magic with this classic children’s movie. Firstly, a child’s wish to exercise an exorbitant amount of freedom, without much impunity. Secondly, a child’s wish to be a hero, overcoming insurmountable odds on the path to victory. Kevin is left to his elements, finds himself, and ultimately protects his home from two marauding invaders. Oh, how every child wishes they could live a similar tale.

Then of course, we move onto the homely and sentimental touches of the film. The theme of Christmas and family. By and large, these two components are inseparable, so when they are separated as Kevin’s left home alone, you can certainly feed the emptiness ring through the corridors of his house. While the first act presents a family out of touch with Kevin’s needs, the remainder of the movie portrays a mother who’d go to the ends of the earth to see her son once again. We want to be heard. We want to be understood. Most of all, though, we want to know that people care about us, especially when we’re young and helpless. The arcs of both mother and son mirror each other. They’re unable to reconcile their differences in the beginning, but when distance gets the better of them, quite literally in this instance, they come to realize how meaningless their lives are without each other. Both mother and son begin to understand that they’ve been too hard on each other. Catherine O’Hara is wonderful in this role, playing the part of a desperate mother who’d camp out at the airport for the next available ticket back to America, before using any and all transport methods to get home as soon as possible. Kevin also realizes his errors, but gradually as opposed to immediately, and becomes truly enlightened after a conversation with a dreaded neighbor. 

To remind him of Christmas’ meaning, Kevin finds himself going to the local church where he talks to his spooky neighbor, Marley, played by the wizened Roberts Blossom. Kevin’s brother had created a haunting profile of the old man, one that involves him killing his family. In reality, though, the Marley Kevin had come to dread over the years is more Albus Dumbledore than Hannibal Lecter. The kid and the elder have a heart-to-heart, connecting over their seemingly patchy family lives: Kevin with his deserted family, and Marley with his estranged son.

Before long, there’s an understanding between the two that life is quite short, and that to live in fear, or with things being unsaid, like apologies, would be such a waste. The wildly different characters take this lesson to heart, set on correcting their mistakes before it’s too late. I hated conflict as a child. I was (and maybe still am) a kid that would overreact to even the slightest grievance, creating a problem that was bigger than the original one. So apologies, correcting mistakes, and second chances were par for the course. It was difficult to do, but the guilt of not doing it was enough motivation to go ahead. In Home Alone, you have several parties realizing their errors. Marley regrets the chasm between his son and himself. Kevin’s mom regrets the lack of attention she gave her youngest son. Kevin regrets the harsh words he had for his family before they left for Paris without him. They’re all on paths to fix those mistakes, hoping for a second chance. I’m a sucker for second chances, and Home Alone had plenty of them.

Why I like it as an adult

Reason number one is Joe Pesci. The boogeyman known for wacking people in Goodfellas. A stone-cold killer. This guy had Billy Batts killed for making fun of him, so think of what he’d do to Kevin for similar transgressions. Kevin makes a joke out of him, and turns into a constant thorn in his ass, preventing his character Harry from having a perfect streak of burglaries. A 12-year old dupes one of the quintessential movie wise guys of the 90s, rendering him incompetent by all meaningful standards. This is a meta-analysis after the fact of course.

And for that very reason, leveraging the caricatured persona of Joe Pesci to Home Alone’s advantage was an excellent idea. Some actors are tethered to certain roles or types of roles no matter what they do to break free from them. Child actors are the most likely to fall victim to this predicament. Think of some Disney stars, or even this film’s very own Macaulay Culkin. Then think of people stuck on TV shows for years. David Schwimmer is Ross. Jennifer Aniston is Rachel. In movies, some actors knock certain roles out of the park, and a similar situation plays out. Presidents and Gods are assigned to Morgan Freeman by default, unless it’s Zeus, in which case Liam Neeson steps in. And when you think of villains, names like Ed Harris, Dominic West, and Joe Pesci, inevitably pop up.

I’m looking at this film from the lens of someone who knows that Pesci has played hotheaded blowhards for some time. Back in 1990, maybe this wasn’t the case. Goodfellas was released two months before Home Alone, so Pesci was probably still working on that colorful onscreen reputation, even though he did have some vibrant outings in Raging Bull. Either way, in 2020, it is rather hilarious to see a mafioso getting bested by a child. In hindsight, it feels like a stroke of genius, a tongue-in-cheek response where both the actor and the filmmakers acknowledge how absurdly brilliant Pesci’s casting really is.

Finally, the movie reminds me of a simpler time. We have an irrational capacity to project meaning to things that are mostly meaningless. When I watched it a second time this January, I was back in my parents’ home, unemployed and uninspired. I definitely waxed nostalgic when I watched it, taking me back to when I was a kid and the only thing to worry about was doing my homework, or whether or not I had to eat greens for dinner. Not so much these days. The movie was a respite from reality. And a welcome one at that. Home Alone’s a time machine, transporting me to that youthful sweet spot where ignorance truly was bliss.

Culkin’s debut hit helped in other ways, too. I have a dream of celebrating Christmas with a few friends and family during winter, and it’s cold outside and it’s snowing. We’d do normal Christmas things indoors, surrounded by the warmth of a fireplace, electric or woodfire, I don’t know. In essence, I was feeling a little like Kevin on Day 2 or 3 of his Christmas vacation, hoping to be surrounded by loved ones, not having to fill the silence with just music or repeats of Angels With Filthy Souls, that vintage flick with the infamous “filthy animal” line. So yeah, I’m dreaming of being in a white suburban family in America.

At this moment, I’m in a country where the temperature reaches a 100 degrees in December. A cold, snowy Christmas would be a miracle or a sign of the world’s ending. Either way, the movie reminded me that I had to get going. Apply for jobs. Interview for jobs. Get a job. Work at said job. Make a living. So that I can make that dream come true after buying a snow machine and a house with a chimney, for said fireplace (assuming I still live in this tropical nightmare). Some would call this dream silly, or misleading to be exact. Shouldn’t you be grateful for all that you have? Isn’t that part of Christmas’ true meaning? Yes, I should, and I am. I have family and friends who do care about me, as I do about them to the extent I can. What’s missing is the god damn snow during December. And the fireplace. That dream is a long way off, but in some small way, Kevin McCallister put me on the right track.

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