My Misspent Youth In Films...
Directed by: Chris Columbus
Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern
Released: November 10, 1990
What I Thought Then
This was an unexpected hit that people just couldn't stop talking about. It was a wish-fulfillment fantasy that spoke to every elementary-school boy's desire to beat up dumb criminals while protecting their home. I guess.
What I Think Now
The biggest difference for me watching this movie now is that I relate a whole lot more to the plight of the parents. Catherine O'Hara's near-maniacal drive to get home to her son feels 100% authentic, whereas it seemed like background plot business that ate up time between set-pieces when I watched it as a kid. To be sure, this is a film largely framed around one big set-piece at the finale, in which Kevin McAlister takes on the Wet Bandits in his home. But watching it now, I'm much more keyed into the story around it, and let me tell you, the story works. I might have gotten a little teary-eyed at the end.
Seriously, there's some masterful storytelling sleight-of-hand going on here. It's a very busy movie with a large cast, but you never get confused. Even the opening--a thirteen-minute scene which is supposed to convey just how chaotic the household is--is doing a ton of heavy-lifting. In those thirteen minutes you get a ton of information. You get an overview of the geography of the house. You get the central family dynamic: Kevin is the youngest and is a bit of a brat, his mom is the lead parent in the household, and his older brother Buzz picks on him a lot. They're reasonably wealthy, a fact that is reinforced by Uncle Frank being a cheapskate. We get to see Buzz's tarantula and learn about the scary neighbor next door, both of which will be important for the ending. And that's not all! It also starts setting up some of the elaborate plot contrivances that will allow Kevin to be left home alone and the sequence concludes by setting up his character arc. Kevin wishes his family away, and by the end of the movie he will have decided that he wants them back.
It also plants some key lines of dialog that are important in transitioning the film into its second act. When Kevin wakes up alone and convinces himself that he made his family disappear, we see flashbacks of family members saying things from that opening scene like "Kevin, you're such a disease" and "Look what you did, you little jerk." What's notable is that we're seeing new performances that are exaggerated to come across as even meaner than they had been before. This cues the viewer to know that we've gone fully into Kevin's head. The movie is now subject to kid logic. The villains are cartoony, as are the consequences of violence. Kevin narrates his actions and mugs directly to the camera. His imaginings are realized visually, such as when he thinks the boiler is going to eat him. All of this is important to make the ending work because the finale is, frankly, ridiculous. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as the Wet Bandits are subjected to levels of abuse that should have hospitalized both of them and left them with permanent scars. But since the movie has by that point firmly established that it is a live-action cartoon, the audience is granted permission to laugh at them. Yes, Kevin's machinations work a little too perfectly. It doesn't matter, because we accept that he's basically playing the Roadrunner to Pesci and Stern's Wile E. Coyote.
The other thing really making this movie work are the performances. I've already mentioned O'Hara, and John Heard is affable as Kevin's father. John Candy shows up in a small but memorable supporting role. Eagle-eyed viewers might even spot Hope Davis as a ticket agent with a French-ish accent (Oh, hey, Hope Davis is in this!). But the film hinges entirely on Macaulay Culkin, and he's fantastic. And he would use this film as a launching point for a brief career for him and his brothers followed by a series of public breakdowns. Hollywood's rough on a kid. But in this, he's great. He's endearing and charismatic. You can't help but laugh along with him through his admittedly brattish antics.
As for things that haven't aged well... there's not much to mention. None of the actors have gone on to live cringe-inducing lives that take you out of the film when you see them (unlike one notable cameo in the sequel). Most of the special effects are practical, so they still look great. There are a couple of places where the camera is ramped down (read: the film is sped up) that are noticeable if you're looking for them, and some of the airport sets look a little flimsy. But honestly, the least believable thing about this movie is that fifteen people were able to get to the airport and on a plane in forty-five minutes because this movie was made ten years before the TSA was a thing.
Yeah, it's a charming holiday film, and it holds up.