In honor of the 25th anniversary of Home Alone, barricaded ourselves into an empty suburban home, set up an elaborate series of booby traps, and hunkered down to analyze what the film is really about. Here’s part one of our two-part conversation.
Belinkie: So guys, Home Alone turns 25 this year! I recently rewatched it, and it struck me as a strangely schizophrenic movie. It’s about a child who is sick of his family, and gets accidentally left behind for the holidays. For a while he’s delighted that his dreams have come true, and he revels in doing all the things his parents would never have let him do. But gradually, he comes to miss them. On Christmas Eve he makes a wish to have things go back to the way they were, and sure enough his family returns the next day. It’s a perfect little “be careful what you wish for” fairy tale.
But 75% of the way through the film, it suddenly becomes a Looney Tune about a boy setting booby traps for burglars. This has only the flimsiest plot justification (why doesn’t Kevin call the police when the bad guys show up, instead of 20minutes later?) and it’s easy to imagine the movie telling the same story without any burglars at all. And yet, it’s this slapstick third act of the movie that seems to get all the love and attention. Is this a case where the movie offers the simple pleasures of a man getting shot in the nuts for kids, and a more nuanced coming of age story for the parents?
Stokes: I think it’s more nuanced than that. Consider: the “mature” plot as you’ve described it is essentially the same plot as Where the Wild Things Are. Max doesn’t want to deal with his mom, so he goes to the land of no moms. Eventually he gets tired of that, so he comes home and hugs his mommy. (It’s a comedy: ultimately, nothing changes.) But that interval between the departure and the return is super important! Where the Wild Things Are is the name of the book for a reason. You’ve got to let the wild rumpus start. And that’s the sequence where Macaulay Culkin gets his Jack Bauer on. When you say “he revels in doing all the things his parents would never let him do,” you have it 90% right. But not all of those things are nice cute things like pretending to shave. Some of them involve hitting a grown man in the nuts with a golf club, or whatever he actually does. (Matt, you have two children. Don’t tell me you don’t know what evil lurks in the heart of man.)
A slightly more honest version of the story would have Kevin setting his booby traps for random strangers on the street, or various authority figures that he feels he’s been wronged by. (I wonder if there’s a draft of the script where he sets the booby traps for his parents, to teach them a lesson about leaving him behind.) But obviously this version could never get made, and so Kevin’s malicious id is provided with an appropriate target in the form of Joe Pesci. This makes it acceptable. (Because, sure, the little censor has run away to Paris. But the big censor is inside of us, and does not take vacations.)
Belinkie: I’m not convinced. In your reading, the booby trap sequence is the ultimate expression of Kevin’s child side. But I think it’s actually presented as quite the opposite. By that point in the movie, Kevin has matured a lot. He does the laundry. He cooks himself a sensible dinner. He does the dishes. He conquers his fear of the furnace. And before the crooks show up, he declares: “This is my house. I have to defend it.” In this context, there’s nothing wild rumpus about the booby traps. They are his attempts to meet the hostile adult world with an adult level of force. (Sure, he seems to enjoy himself when the burglars stumble into painful situation after painful situation, but his blueprint says “BATTLE PLAN” for a reason.)
But perhaps we can compromise and say that the booby traps are a synthesis of Kevin’s kid side and his newfound maturity. He has to draw upon both to win. (And then of course, he still almost loses, and he’s ultimately rescused by an adult authority figure. At the end of the day, there are limits to Kevin’s autonomy.)
Stokes: I think you are conflating “Kevin’s kid side” with “the stuff his parents don’t want him to do.” Do his parents not want him to be a child? And again, think about the iconic shaving scene. Shaving is a total adult move!
But autonomy is a good way to put it. All of the stuff he does while he’s alone — childish, responsible, cute, violent — is all autonomous in a way that kids don’t usually get to be.
Belinkie: So you think sledding down the stairs and shaving are both “wrong,” in different ways. Kevin sometimes plays at responsibility, but it’s still not the right role for him.
If that’s true, then Kevin’s “maturing” is just him indulging his freedom in a different way. The TRUE maturation is wishing to be a kid again and running into his mother’s arms.
Stokes: Yeah, or not maturing, exactly, but setting the balance right. I don’t think he’s supposed to be mature yet. I know that when my son is acting out and I get annoyed, I don’t want him to, like, go fill out my tax return. I want him to be the perfect adorable little boy that I know he really is.
Belinkie: I’m still not convinced the whole sequence with the booby traps is integral to Kevin’s story. He’s already decided he wants his family back before then. He’s already befriended the creepy neighbor. He doesn’t have any big revelations left to make.
Adams: So it’s important to remember: any discussion about Home Alone (1990) that doesn’t also involve Die Hard (1988) is fundamentally incomplete. Home Alone was in the hey-day of “Die Hard on a _______” movie pitches. And Home Alone fits that mold – it even takes place at Christmas! So do the goofy booby traps get in the way of the Kevin-coming-of-age-arc, or is the Kevin coming of age arc just a way of adding a veneer or development to the goofy booby traps?
Belinkie: Oh wow! So it’s possible Home Alone started with the idea of a kid version of Die Hard, and then they reversed engineered a scenario that would make that happen? That theory is too good to check by Googling. But on the other hand, the non-booby trap part of Home Alone is VERY John Hughes. He constantly returned to the theme of kids (teenagers mostly) that can’t connect with parents or authority figures. Think of The Breakfast Club. Or Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles. Her parents literally forget her birthday. Or Cameron in Ferris Bueller, with his daddy issues. Kevin’s just another in a long line of John Hughes kids who are smarter than their two-dimensional parents.
Stokes: Doesn’t disprove the theory — that family dynamic is, like, the hammer that John Hughes has. Any screenwriting challenge that you toss him will presumably look like a nail.
“A kid version of die hard? What a concept! Hmm, obviously he needs to be isolated somehow — hey, I can just write that thing that I write! It totally fits.”
Heh, now I’m imagining every auteur doing their default version of Home Alone. Quentin Tarantino casts Samuel L. Jackson as Kevin. In Wes Anderson’s version the paint cans are meticulously crafted replicas of a discontinued watercolor set from 1970. M. Night Shyamalan reveals in a shocking twist that Kevin is actually a ghost haunting the house that he died in, and the burglars are actually the new owners.
Oh, whoops, “M. Night Shyamalan’s Home Alone” is actually just The Others, my bad.
Adams: To get back at least a little to Matt’s original point, I think part of the schizophrenia that you describe is endemic to the genre of the Christmas movie. LOTS of Christmas movies have an overall story arc that’s grounded in some family-friendly character development, but a third act devoted to some zany premise grounded in magic/Santa/elves/etc. There’s no magic in Home Alone per se, but there may as well be, given the Wet Bandits seeming invulnerability to mortal injury.
(And Die Hard is not NOT one of those movies – it’s just that the zany third act takes up the entire running length of the movie, and the family friendly story arc gets squeezed into the first 15 minutes and closing credits sequence)
Stokes: Hmm. Good point. Kids movies in general sort of tend to do this, no? (And the disconnect between zany action and plot is arguably endemic to the action movie, which loops Die Hard back in.)
Belinkie: Perhaps what I’m saying is that Home Alone would seem to have a Ghost Ship problem. People watch the movie in large part to see the home invasion stuff… but that doesn’t begin until very late in the story. You could argue this is akin to Miracle, when the big game doesn’t actually happen until the very end. But in Miracle, that confrontation is on the radar from the very start. In Home Alone, the booby traps really come out of left field. (Sure, he rigs up a fake dinner party earlier, which I suppose you can argue sets up the grander schemes that will come later.)
In Part 2, Fenzel enters the Tank with a theory about sitcom logic, we finally get to Freud, and we uncover new ways that Home Alone is strangely split and yet totally cohesive.