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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Like Christmas Vacation, Home Alone became an instant holiday classic upon release. Centering upon Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin in a career-defining role) who was accidentally left home after his family goes to Paris for the Christmas holiday. Enjoying being by himself at first, Kevin soon learns that, despite their differences, he misses his family and wishes them to return. At the same time, Kevin runs afoul of the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) who attempt to rob the wealthy McCallisters’ home. It is an absurd, inherently flawed premise (like, how come Kevin never calls the police even though he knows his house is going to be targeted?), but it works because of two critical things.
The first is the acting. Macaulay Culkin was great as Kevin. Most kid actors are terrible, and to have a film where your main lead is 10 years-old is risky. John Hughes and Chris Columbus struck gold with Culkin. He is able to sell everything. From the awkwardness of him trying to act grown up and mature to him getting freaked out like any little kid would is a joy to watch and is never cringe-worthy.
Catherine O’Hara as Kevin’s mother, I feel, steals the movie. Her obsessiveness to return home to her son boarders on crazy-town, but O’Hara resists the temptation of going too over-the-top. She dials it back just enough to keep things relatable and realistic, yet humorous. Along the same lines, we have Pesci and Stern as the bumbling burglars. They are goofy and roll with the slap-stick very well, but they never lose their sense of menace.
The other thing that makes this movie work is that it is loaded with charm. Legitimate charm. Many Christmas movies try to force down lovable holiday message, and the attempt comes off as contrived. Not here. Make no mistake, it is sappy in some places, they sell it just enough without going overboard. Having Kevin weave into the subplot of Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom) is what allowed Kevin’s desire for his family to have some meaning.
What really helps is that the “sappy parts” are what makes the slapstick in the final act work. Things are just so silly when the Bandits get caught in the multiple traps Kevin sets up. If the film did not have something of balance this slapstick, the movie would have fallen apart. Alternatively, if the movie did not have any of the hijinks at the end, Home Alone would have been instantly forgettable.
According to IMDB, Home Alone is the highest grossing comedy of all time (I do not know if this accounts for inflation). I can see why. This film was lightning in a bottle which each Home Alone sequel failed to achieve. It works on many levels and is still fondly remembered in pop-culture today. What isn’t there to love about it?