Ah, Christmas. Truly, the greatest holiday ever invented, a time when we all gather with our loved ones to celebrate the wondrous day when Jesus, Santa and Superman joined forces to banish Jack Frost to the Phantom Zone. And each year we use our festive cheer to top up the defenses of Frost's magic prison to ensure that he will never again threaten our world. And if that little bitch Linus tells you anything else, Charlie Brown, he's a goddamned liar. (It's worth pointing out at this point that I was educated at Church of England schools as a child, which is as close as you can get to being an atheist whilst still being guaranteed a place in Heaven, so I'm willing to admit that my teachers may have flubbed some of the details, loveable souses that they were.)
Things I Learned From Movie X
Home Alone 2: Lost In New York
By Edwin Davies
December 22, 2011
It truly is the most wonderful time of the year, and in keeping with the season, this festive installment of Things I Learned From Movie X (or "A Things I Learned From Movie Xmas", if you want to be extra Christmassy) will focus on one of the most successful Christmas movies ever made, 1992's Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, in which the world's most violent ten-year-old is unleashed on the streets of Manhattan, like a three-foot Godzilla, leaving chaos and destruction in his wake. What deeper subtext is there to be drawn from a film which features Daniel Stern getting a stapler shot into his crotch? You'd be surprised, maybe.
(On a sincere note, I hope that everyone reading this and everyone who has read these columns this year has a wonderful time over the next few weeks, regardless of what holiday you celebrate. Right, enough heart, time for the withering sarcasm.)
New York in the early '90s was a magical place, free of problems of any kind
The plot of Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, starts when Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Kulkin) and his family decide to spend Christmas in Florida. In the chaos of trying to herd all the children and adults through the airport, Kevin accidentally gets up on the wrong plane and winds up in New York, immediately invalidating the title of the film, since at no point is he Alone in his Home. A more accurate title would have been Surrounded By Strangers In A Place You Don't Live, which incidentally is also the title of the screenplay for an indie romance I wrote when I was 17, which remains unproduced because it doesn't exist, and this entire last sentence has been a lie.
The film glosses over the fact that Kevin's parents are the most negligent in cinema history (though I like to think that the lack of McCallisters in the subsequent films is due to the fact that, following the events of Home Alone 2, Social Services finally stepped in and took Kevin away from them) and instead spends much of its first half depicting New York as a candy-covered wonderland filled with giant toy stores and a murder rate well below the national average. In reality, New York at the time still had a reputation for crime and violence that the film completely ignores, sacrificing harsh social realism for wacky family hijinks. (This became a trademark of director Chris Columbus, who directed Mrs. Doubtfire the following year and chose to jettison the original ending, in which Robin Williams' has a complete psychotic break and is consumed by the Mrs. Doubtfire persona, who then proceeds to beat Pierce Brosnan to death.) Even once Kevin is kicked out of the luxury hotel that he tricks his way into staying at and is forced to live in an empty tenement house under-going refurbishment, the film still makes everything look incredibly sanitary and safe, when a real house undergoing renovation in New York circa 1992 would have been stripped of all its copper wiring and filled to the brim with rotting corpses.
The homeless are there to help us, not the other way around
Home Alone 2 has a very special place in my heart since it was one of the first films to teach me that a sequel to a popular movie doesn't need to have any new ideas, but just be an exact replica of the first in a new location. Most of the elements from the original Home Alone that are retained are harmless, even though the script occasionally strains to explain why, for example, the villains from the first film are back and now in New York, but the most awkward is probably the inclusion of an older, slightly scary but ultimately warmhearted character who saves Kevin at the end.
In the first film, this role was fulfilled by an old man who carries around a shovel. The character is weird and slightly creepy, but he seems to have a life outside of the story of the film. For the second film, writer John Hughes decided that the helper character should be a homeless woman named Kate who is constantly covered by pigeons, a decision which gets increasingly uncomfortable as the story progresses, since it raises and trivializes the struggle of the underclass whilst also making Kevin seem like a callow and heartless youth who has no empathy for other people. This starts about halfway through the film when Kevin teams up with Kate for the first time, and says that he realized she was nice because pigeons are always hanging out with her, and they wouldn't do that if she wasn't a good person. This ignores the fact that, being homeless, she probably reeks of fetid human waste, and by Kevin's logic, Kate and a dead rat are morally equitable because of the ease with which they both attract scavenger birds.
Later, though, the sense of distance between Kevin and the entirety of humanity becomes more stark in a scene in which the two share a tender moment in the rafters of an opera house. I say "tender" because what the scene largely amounts to is the two discussing their problems, but since Kevin's main problem is that he has a big family and sometimes he gets lost in the shuffle and Kate's main problem is that she hasn't got a fucking home, it comes off as a little shallow, like a college student spending a year abroad complaining about his girl troubles to a man who lost his family in a genocide. It's meant to be heartwarming and to give Kevin a sense of perspective, but Culkin so completely fails to pull it off that he just comes across as a bit of a prick, and by the end of the scene I found myself screaming, "Don't just leave her; give her one of your cookies so that she can fucking eat, you little shit!" at the screen.
Their final scene together, in which Kevin gives Kate a porcelain Turtle Dove so that they'll never forget each other, rings especially false, since whilst he gets to spend Christmas day in a swanky hotel suite with his entire family, then fly back to his massive house in Michigan, she remains homeless, and as a result will probably freeze to death once the harsh winter takes its toll.
We Need To Talk About Kevin McCallister
Viewed from the point of view of Kevin McCallister, Home Alone 2 is a light-hearted romp in which a plucky scamp thwarts a couple of burglars and saves Christmas. Viewed from the perspective of Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), Home Alone 2 is basically Saw. Now, the film takes its time getting to that point, initially having Kevin commit "harmless" acts of violence like causing them to slip on ice or tricking a woman into punching them in the face, but once he lures them to an abandoned house that he has converted into a torture palace that the Cenobites from Hellraiser would have been proud of, it makes the leap into pure, visceral horror.
To give a sense of just how violently sadistic Kevin is, let's look at the first thing he does to Marv when he and Harry arrive at the house. He drops a brick on his head. Actually, he doesn't drop it, he THROWS it, and not only does he throw it, he does so from the fifth story of a house. Even though this really should have killed Marv instantly, or at the very least have given him severe brain damage and completely destroyed his basic motor functions, Kevin keeps doing it, and winds up hitting Marv in the head four times. (Though, in a nod to realism, after the third brick Marv is rendered almost incoherent by the blunt trauma he has endured.) That's the *first* thing he does to him. From there on in it's a litany of abuse and sadism which includes, but is not limited to, Harry having a whole bag of tools dropped on his head, Marv getting several thousand volts of electricity sent through his body, and Harry having his head set on fire, which he then sticks into a toilet filled with kerosene.
Basically, Harry and Marv should have died a dozen times over the course of the film, and the fact that they don't highlights the major problem that Home Alone 2 has with its tone; the violence is meant to be cartoonish, but the responses to that violence are anything but. Oscar-winner Joe Pesci and TV Land Award for Favorite Heard-But-Not-Seen Character-nominee Daniel Stern really make you feel every impact, which makes the violence kind of hard to dismiss as cartoonish. If they brushed each attack off like they were in a Three Stooges short, there would be no problem, but since they really seem to be feeling it, the film feels a bit sour and misanthropic, especially since they just keep struggling to their feet and asking for more. It makes you wonder if there was a whole stream of murders in the '90s caused by kids thinking that dropping a 200 pound sandbag onto their babysitter's head would have limited ill effects.
By the time that Kevin runs off to phone the cops, he's subjected Harry and Marv to such an ordeal that it seems less like he is asking for help than he is calling to gloat about the two men he has killed, and to taunt the harried detectives desperately trying to stop his rampage. That the film ends with his father discovering that Kevin has spent hundreds of dollars on room service, almost certainly ruining his family's carefully balanced finances, only confirms that Kevin McCallister can sit comfortably alongside Tom Ripley as one of the truly great sociopaths of cinema.
So, as you tuck into your turkey on Christmas day, remember this; Kevin McCallister is still out there. He was never caught, and he is waiting for you to fall into his den of tricks. I hope you all have a Merry Christmas, because if Kevin has anything to say about it, it will be your last.