Thursday, April 4, 2019
April 4, 2019: 80s Comedies: Home Alone
[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I decided to AmericanStudy a handful of classic 1980s comic films. I know you’ll have responses and nominations of your own for this series, so share ‘em for a high-larious weekend post, please!]
On the interesting, and definitely American, layers underlying one of our silliest holiday classics.
As much as I believe in the power of AmericanStudies analyzing, I’m still not gonna try to make the case that the stunning and perennial popularity of Home Alone (1990) has been due to complex national themes. No, the John Hughes-scripted, Chris Columbus-directed, Macaulay Culkin-starring mega-hit was and remains popular, first and foremost, because of the spider on Daniel Stern’s face, the flying metal bucket to Joe Pesci’s head, Culkin’s reaction to using aftershave for the first time, the pizza guy who thinks the gangster film is reality, and the movie’s many other silly and funny moments. As a lifelong devotee of the Zucker Brothers, I would never judge anyone’s enjoyment of silly and slapstick humor, and for much of its second half Home Alone is a masterclass in those styles. I’ve seen the enduring appeal of those elements first-hand as my sons have become big fans of the film and series (we even watched the non-Culkin-starring Part 3!).
Yet just because a movie is entertaingly silly doesn’t mean we can’t find and analyze other elements and layers to it; if anything, Home Alone’s popularity means that any and all details and themes within it have likely been viewed and engaged with by many millions of Americans (and audiences around the world), and so are doubly worth our attention. For example, there’s the secondary but ultimately crucial plotline involving “Old Man Marley,” Kevin’s (Culkin) scary neighbor; Marley is rumored to have killed his family, but eventually Kevin learns that he is simply lonely and estranged from them, and the two help each other: Marley saves Kevin from the burglars, Kevin helps Marley reconnect with his son and granddaughter. The character and plotline strongly echo Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird, suggesting some of the same themes: the need to move beyond communal gossip and myths and learn about the truths of an individual’s identity and life; the ways in which such connections can ultimately save and sustain our own lives and homes. Both Kevin and Marley, after all, spend much of the film “home alone,” and both find their way back to full houses thanks to each other’s efforts.
This is more of a stretch—or an extrapolation, let’s say—but I would also connect Kevin’s arc in the film to defining American narratives of individualism and the self-made man. Kevin isn’t exactly a Horatio Alger protagonist, but for most of the film he’s pretty close: like Ragged Dick and all his peers, Kevin finds himself separated from his parents (and particularly his beloved Mom), and is forced to depend on his own wits and strengths to survive and prosper. Yet while Alger’s orphans have forever lost their childhood homes, Kevin is temporarily orphaned within his home, and that crucial detail, coupled with the film’s parallel plotline of his Mom’s frenzied efforts to get back to Kevin, significantly complicates the film’s engagement with these national narratives. Like the Marley plotline, that is, these details both suggest the importance of individual identity and actions and yet reflect the way our lives and homes ultimately depend on community, on the presence of those influential others who help make our homes what they ideally are. There’s some definite value to spending time home alone and to the self-making for which such an experience allows, Kevin’s story argues, but at the end of the day it takes a village to make that home what it is.
Last comedy tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? 80s comedies (or other comic films) you’d highlight?