Hughes Day Tuesday: Pesci’s and Stern’s pratfall humor stands out in otherwise heartfelt ‘Home Alone’ (1990) (Movie review)

H

ome Alone” (1990) is a simple crowd-pleaser on the surface, deftly crafted by writer John Hughes and director Chris Columbus (among the best directors of kids since Steven Spielberg). But it has gained an intriguing layer of controversy in the 30 years since its release because of the violence inflected on the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci’s Harry and Daniel Stern’s Marv) by young Kevin (Macaulay Culkin).

Indeed, when I reflect on this movie without having freshly watched it, I assume it must be inappropriately violent for a children’s picture – one of those movies from a time before we knew better. When viewing it, I feel differently. It’s the “banana peel” rule: If someone slips on a banana peel and gets back up, mad about how it made them look silly, and perhaps with a bruise, but nothing serious, it’s funny. If they slip on a banana peel and don’t get back up, it’s not funny.

Harry and Marv always get back up, Harry often muttering angry gibberish with only an occasional “I’m gonna rip your head off” peppered in. So it’s OK to laugh at “Home Alone,” and even to save the biggest chuckles for the grand finale — which is a smaller percentage of the film than we remember, and which uses a lot of implied violence. (Like the meat hook in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” the nail is not shown going through Marv’s foot. We filled in the blank.)

The phrase “funny for adults and children” is overused, but it applies here because the pratfalls of Pesci and Stern strike funnybones of all ages, whether they are sliding on the icy sidewalk or stepping on sharp ornaments in bare feet.

The phrase “funny for adults and children” is overused, but it applies here because the pratfalls of Pesci and Stern strike funnybones of all ages, whether they are sliding on the icy sidewalk or stepping on sharp ornaments in bare feet.

It’s important that the humor lands, because the top-billed Culkin is clearly a kid being coached by Columbus. Kevin is cute and likeable, but I don’t genuinely believe he’s so talented, either at devising traps or doing the laundry. On the latter point, he’s legitimately more skilled than Michael Keaton’s Mr. Mom.

This is a family friendly film, but it hits adults and kids differently. While I won’t quite say this is Hughes’ best film, it does feature his best tightrope walking. Seeing this at age 12 in theaters, I felt some of Kevin’s panic at being left home alone; on this viewing, I felt mom Kate’s (Catherine O’Hara) terrifying realization that she left Kevin behind – and right on the heels of that wonderful relief of making your flight on time.

Hughes peppers in a lot of his internal clichés to craft something so original that it’s now a subgenre, a status also achieved by “Die Hard” a couple years prior. Four more “Home Alones” followed (two more by Hughes), plus Hughes seemingly used discarded gags for “Dennis the Menace.” And earlier this year, we got “ ‘Home Alone’ in the Woods” in the form of “Becky” (which, to be clear, is not appropriate for young viewers).

The sprawling McCallister family is like a toned-down version of the Griswolds, especially in the opening sequence showing the chaos in their mansion-sized Chicago house (which later becomes Kevin’s massive fort he has to defend against the Bandits).

Kevin’s church conversation with scary-to-a-kid (but actually perfectly kind) neighbor Marley (Roberts Blossom) is one of those little asides that serve as the glue in a Hughes film – and it’s also the moment that embodies the spirit of Christmas. Perhaps subversively by the reckoning of modern helicopter parents, Marley teaches kids to not be afraid of strangers. It’s delightful that the 8-year-old gives some wisdom back to the 80-year-old, who is scared to attempt a reconciliation with his son.

And then there’s that gut-busting throwaway anecdote from John Candy’s oboe player in a traveling polka band. Trying to cheer up Kate, he admits that he once left his kid in a funeral home: “Apparently he had been alone all day with the corpse. He was OK though. After two, three weeks he came around and started talking again.”

Hughes, who never forgot the trauma of being left home alone just as he never forgot the horror of high school, isn’t one to see age as anything but a number. But that Candy bit is a delicious, perfectly timed piece of dark humor solely for the adults in the audience. “Home Alone” stays balanced on that fine line, capturing kids’ and parents’ abandonment fears from opposite angles while never forgetting that the premise is intrinsically cinematic and absurd.

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