Hughes Day Tuesday: Pratfalls and lovable kid make ‘Home Alone 3’ (1997) surprisingly decent (Movie review)

B

ecause of the reputation that the “Home Alone” films precipitously drop off in quality after part two, I had low expectations for director Raja Gosnell and writer John Hughes’ “Home Alone 3” (1997), and ended up rather liking it. Alex D. Linz gives an endearing child performance as 8-year-old Alex Pruitt, whose snowy Chicago neighborhood is invaded by four industrial-espionage agents trying to reacquire a valuable computer chip that’s in Alex’s toy monster truck.

Granted, none of these four (Olek Krupa, Rya Kihlstedt, Lenny von Dohlen and David Thornton) are up to the level of Joe Pesci and physical comedy legend Daniel Stern, but they aren’t bad. The neighborhood-wide pratfalls – with chicken-pox-addled Alex gleefully remote-controlling his truck, which has a camera on top, from his attic windows — are gradually ratcheted up over the movie’s second half. By the time they try to storm the Pruitt house, I was smiling and sometimes laughing.

I assumed the violence would be dialed back by the late Nineties, but this third entry is still pretty violent – with Hughes again showing his fascination with people getting electrocuted (something that dates back at least to “The Great Outdoors’ ” poor schmo who attracts lightning). As with the first two “HA” films, these four bandits would be dead many times over in the real world, suffering everything from disabling broken bones from the Pruitt house’s traps to hypothermia from the frozen pool.

Linz is a better child actor than Macaulay Culkin; never obviously directed by Gosnell and always aware that the movie’s tone is supposed to be fun. Indeed, “Home Alone 3” – a rare film set in the wake of Christmas rather than leading up to the holiday – has a slightly more whimsical tone than the first two. This makes it the less substantial film, because Kevin’s fear of being home alone and – even more so – lost in New York is palpable, especially to viewers his age.

Linz is a better child actor than Macaulay Culkin; never obviously directed by Gosnell and always aware that the movie’s tone is supposed to be fun.

But it’s a smart move to not compete with the first two films on that level. In fact, Alex is not even left alone for long stretches. The film’s first act is its weakest (the way the bad guys lose the chip at the airport is expositional more than humorous), and that lack of early momentum is probably why “HA3” is so disliked. But one positive note is it plays against our expectation that Alex will be carelessly abandoned.

He has two loving parents (including “Sixteen Candles’ ” beautiful Haviland Morris), two snarky siblings (among them Scarlett Johannson in an undeveloped role) and an old neighbor lady (Marian Seldes) who will begrudgingly look in on him if asked. In stark contrast to the absurdly overwhelmed Mrs. McCallister, Mrs. Pruitt is devoted to Alex. Most of her scenes find her telling her boss that she can’t come in to the office because she’s taking care of a sick child.

There’s no issue of the Pruitts being bad parents; rather, Hughes touches on the struggles of work-family balance. But the central theme is that no one believes Alex when he calls the police about the burglars he spies through his telescope; I sympathize with him more than with Kevin, whose success against the villains is more a case of random luck. The way Alex smartly tackles the problem on his own, rather than whining, makes “Home Alone 3” a great flick for kids in his age range. (Well, maybe slightly older than 8, because the violence in these movies … well, it’s for each parent to decide, but it gets pretty rough.)

This caps the Hughes-penned portion of the “HA” franchise (now at five films and counting), and there’s probably a big decline coming later, but this isn’t the dropoff point. Amid Hughes’ second-half-of-career skid, you can do worse than “Home Alone 3.” A lot worse.

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