Ballad of the Wet Bandits

13 Dec

Casually drop a Home Alone quote to anyone in the 20 – 27 age demographic, even if it’s completely out of the blue, and you’ll probably get a knowing smile at least half the time.  Released in 1990, Home Alone was a massive cultural force for grade-school kids upon its initial release, and has remained a holiday staple for over two decades, carried along by its initial target audience through high school, college, and into the real world.

What seems like a forgettable holiday kids flick on the surface – an 8-year old uses toys and appliances to defend his home from hardened criminals – remains remarkably fresh and enjoyable when re-watched today (although the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia do play a significant part in that enjoyment).  The film’s quality makes more sense when you consider that the late, great John Hughes wrote and produced the film, and his skill in writing memorable scenes with relatable characters is evident.  But beyond the mere fact of Hughes’ involvement, what is it specifically about Home Alone that has elevated it to the status of a minor holiday classic, at least when you’re talking to a particular generation?  Since it’s the holidays, lets pull out the Rumplemintz and turn on the VCR.

HOME ALONe

The familiar twinkle of music that opens the movie and the short sequence that introduces the title is a solid introduction to the underlying tone of the story.  There’s a definite sense of mystery and a bit of spookiness in the music, and that feeling extends throughout the movie, particularly in the night before the McAllisters disappear, and also during the climactic night in which the thieves attack the house.  The best Christmas stories and movies have that underlying level of spookiness and mystery about them (A Christmas Carol, The Polar Express [book]) and it works well to give the unfolding story some suspense and thematic weight.

“Pack my suitcase?”

The first introduction to Kevin comes as he strolls through the commotion at his house with a distinct attitude.  Kevin is the clear focus of Home Alone and for kids growing up with the movie, it was impossible not to immediately identify with him as the Man.  His snappy comebacks, self-confident ability to talk with Grown-Ups and do Grown-Up things were all factors that led countless kids, myself among them, to emulate his demeanor and mimic his speech.  I don’t even know how many times that my 8-year-old self would maintain a running dialogue to an imaginary audience, peppered with Kevin quotes, whenever the inspiration struck me.  Usually, it was just to narrate my actions, or express my constant disbelief that something was happening.  But because Kevin did it, and because we watched Kevin do it all the time, it was cool.  The suitcase scene is a perfect introduction to Kevin’s patented indignant reactions.

 “The salt turns the bodies…into mummies.”

The strange old person on the neighborhood block was something that many kids were familiar with.  They owned the houses that were the source of all kinds of absurd stories spouted by kids trying to be tough.  That strange neighbor may actually have had a heart of gold, and I’m sure many of them did.  But the South Bend Shovel Slayer is not helping his case in this situation by dressing like a hobo and slamming a bloodied hand down in front of an 8-year-old trying to buy a toothbrush.  If he did that to me right now there’s a good chance I would follow Kevin’s lead and slowly back my way out of the store and out to safety.

 “Look what you did, you little jerk.”

“Put-put-put it – Put it in your purse!”

Some of the best lines in the movie are courtesy of the one and only Uncle Frank, the dirty old uncle in the McAllister family that drinks, watches inappropriate movies, and plays by his own rules.  Uncle Frank plays a very minimal role in the movie, but his instantly memorable contributions are indicative of the unique and compelling supporting characters that Hughes peppers Home Alone with.  These characters turn small throwaway scenes into highly quotable exchanges that keep the movie humming along.  Frank spits out that “Look what you did, you little jerk” and manages to turn verbal assault of a child into comedy gold.

 “Fuller, goes easy on the Pepsi”

Speaking of supporting characters turning minimal parts into entertaining and unforgettable scenes – here we have Uncle Frank’s favorite (I would assume, he’d be my favorite) son, Fuller.  Fuller pretty much has one joke to his role – he pisses the bed when he drinks Pepsi – but damn, does the movie get mileage out of that joke.  Fuller’s eyebrow raise to Kevin as he chugs his Pepsi is 1) hilarious, and 2) a great example of the little exchanges that can pass between kids without adults catching on.  Kevin’s “He’ll pee all over me” plea to his mom is the perfect capper to the Fuller saga.

“I made my family disappear.”

The scene with Kevin waking up to an empty house marks the point when it truly becomes his movie, and he marks the occasion by sharing his thoughts directly with the audience.  Kevin is by himself for a good stretch of the movie, and while one would assume that this would cut down on a lot of the speaking in these scenes, we instead are treated to a sassy narration of his activities.  Major props should go to Macauley Culkin for his ability to carry a lot of the movie on his own, with a good mix of confidence and self-deprecation.  As discussed before, Kevin’s tendencies to think out loud were immediately picked up by kids everywhere, including yours truly, and parents were treated to smarmy one-liners for many future Christmases.

“Buzz!  Your girlfriend!  Woof!”

It’s highly entertaining to think of Buzz McAllister in his 20s – probably still living in his parent’s basement, driving an IROC Camaro, and smoking a pack of Kools a day, all while continuing to think he’s God’s gift to the world.  He’s still got a weekly allowance coming in from Mom and Dad, as long as he keeps that job he’s holding down at the neighborhood Blockbuster.  Most of his money though comes in from the weed he sells on the side, primarily to rich high school kids and his dad’s golfing buddies.  When I’m not thinking about Future Buzz, I’m finding constant amusement in the perfect way the filmmakers have decorated Buzz’s room.  Of course he would have an Ice-T poster.

 “…get your ugly, yella, no-good keister off my property before I pump your guts full of lead.”

“A lovely cheese pizza, just for me.”

Angels With Filthy Souls is the excellent title of the old gangster movie that Kevin manages to use twice with impeccable timing.  The scenes of this movie-within-a-movie are some of the more well-known parts of Home Alone, and even though they don’t make much sense when you think about it too hard, they provide some decent entertainment value.  The movie itself is a re-cut version of an old 1930s movie called Angels With Dirty Faces, and for reasons unbeknownst to anyone but him, Kevin decides that it would be perfect to use as a means to getting that lovely cheese pizza he craves so much.  (Again, the key is not to think too much into it.)  Kevin’s first victim with the devious video trick is the poor pizza guy, who probably got a little baked on his way over to a delivery that starts routine and then quickly turns into a full-blown panic attack.  Kevin’s dickish behavior to strangers pays off for him in the end, with the video cued up just in time to scare off Marv.  The lesson here for the kids in the audience was to always fuck with the pizza guy.

 “All the great ones leave their mark.  We’re the wet bandits.”

No discussion of Home Alone would be complete without bringing in the great Wet Bandits, Harry and Marv.  Where many other family holiday movies have simply settled with unfunny and cartoonish villains, Home Alone sets itself apart once again with the addition of the great Joe Pesci, and the very solid Daniel Stern.  Pesci seems to be having a great time with his character, and he and Stern do a good job of getting laughs without losing an edge and menace that keeps the movie grounded.  These are, after all, ex-convicts and petty thieves, and through all their bumbling and physical humor, it can be easy to forget how scared shitless the 8-year-old Kevin should be of these skeevers.  The scene in which the Bandits finally corner Kevin and prepare to hurt him is legitimately unnerving in its seriousness, even if it’s only for a fleeting moment.

“…the Silver Tuna.”

Harry coos the pet name for the McCallister house as he peers through a glittering kaleidoscope, and this brings up an underlying theme to Home Alone that plays a substantial role in the feel of the movie – the obvious wealth of the McAllisters.  The financial status of the family is displayed clearly by the amazing house that Kevin has all to himself, and is substantiated further by images of first-class flights to Paris and the sparing of no expense while traveling across the world.  The family’s wealthy status is obviously a plot point, in that it makes their home a target for the Wet Bandits.  But the most lasting impact that the McAllister’s wealth has on the film is the idealized setting that it allows for.  There is something comforting and idyllic about the McAllister mansion all dressed up for the holidays, and watching Kevin run wild throughout this miniature kingdom was something akin to a fantasy for kids in the audience.

 “I’m not afraid anymore.”

Kevin’s bold proclamation of fearlessness comes as he seeks to assume the new title of “Man of the House,” and it leads to arguably the funniest moment in the entire movie.  It’s definitely the best of the many reaction shots that Macauley makes his specialty.  You know the reaction shots I’m talking about – the wide eyed, jaw-dropped yells that are occasionally accompanied by clapping his hands to his cheeks.  This particular scene makes the best use of this reaction, as Kevin’s false bravado is instantly put to the test by the appearance of the South Bend Shovel Slayer, in all of his creepy old man glory.  Like pretty much any 8-year old kid on his own, Kevin immediately crumbles, and his face at that moment is the funniest image of sheer terror I’ve ever seen.  While there are other great ‘yelling reactions’ throughout the movie – Kevin frozen as the Bandits’ fan stops inches from his face, the failed aftershave experiment, etc. – this one will always be the greatest.

 “The Kenosha Kickers.”’

The trend of memorable supporting characters continues with the inclusion of the great John Candy, coming in at the end of the movie to provide some off-kilter humor in what could easily have been a forgettable bit role.  Candy is exactly what I would expect the leader of the Kenosha Kickers to look like, and Home Alone should be considered a solid and memorable part of his film legacy.  His short monologue in which he shares his own ‘home alone’ experience is probably the darkest part of the whole movie, but it’s also great comedy.

 “Hold out your little paw there.”

The meeting between Kevin and the faux-Santa is a good reflection of the balance that Home Alone finds between the fantastical depiction of Christmas and a more realistic approach.  As Kevin approaches the guy playing Santa in this scene, he appears as a fat schlub, grumbling about a parking ticket on his piece-of-shit car.  The audience, at least most of them over the age of 10, can laugh at this as another ironic scene that Home Alone pulls off well.  It becomes clear, however, that to Kevin this guy is someone who works for the real Santa, who very much exists, and who has control over such matters as whether or not the McAllister family comes back.  Home Alone owes a lot of its long-lasting appeal to its ability to toe the line between a skewed, adult perspective of the holidays, and an idealized, kid’s point of view, in which magical things (like your family disappearing) can and do happen.  John Hughes was smart enough not to take Christmas too seriously.

 “This is it.  Don’t get scared now.”

As a kid, I would get incredibly psyched up by the sequence of Kevin setting the traps in his house while “Carole of the Bells” chimes away on the soundtrack.  As a young kid, this really was the stuff you daydreamed about – some bad guys laying siege to your house, and it’s up to you to fight them off.  It only took a couple viewings of Home Alone before I was totally convinced that I too could set devious and deadly booby-traps all over my house.  While I would have to deal with the disappointment of never getting the chance to live out my dream of home defense, I was at least able to enjoy watching Pesci and Stern go all-out in their pursuit of slapstick greatness.  The ‘stunts’ portion of the movie is definitely much more entertaining when you’re a kid, but it’s a tribute to the Wet Bandits that watching them endure a veritable gauntlet of pain can still elicit a smile decades later.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to start the first Home Alone drinking game of the year.  Highly recommended, email for suggestions.  Happy Holidays, and keep the change you filthy animal.

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