Of course it’s the highest-grossing comedy of all time. In this demographic age, when studio bean counters computer-model a movie’s target audience right down to its appeal among Republican teenage opera fans, Home Alone is one of the very few films that almost all groups can get pleasure from: kids, parents, grandparents. Is it brilliantly acted? Nope. Does it break new ground in cinematic realism? Be serious. Does it play like an inoffensive TV sitcom with a great hook and swell production values? Bingo.

That’s okay, though: Junk food has a place in a moviegoing diet, as long as you make room for roughage elsewhere. Home Alone is as synthetic as anything cranked out by the John Hughes screen Ring-Ding factory (here he writes and produces, letting Adventures in Babysitting‘s Chris Columbus handle directing chores). But while movies like Dutch or Only the Lonely are lumpy, hit-or-miss affairs, Home Alone ex-pertly polishes its gem of a concept (li’l Kevin, played by 9-year-old imp Macaulay Culkin, has the house to himself when the folks forget to take him along on a Christmas vacation to France). If Hughes could figure out a way to get the kid’s parents out of the house every week, you know the sitcom would be showing up on a network near you this fall.

Home Alone is already so close to TV fare, in fact, that it settles onto tape as if it were home at last. Hughes knows that most movies released today reach a larger audience on video than in theaters, and he shoots his films accordingly. Sharp-eyed moviegoers who saw Home Alone in the theater may have noticed that almost all of the film’s action takes place in the center of the frame. This means that the movie makes the transfer to video with nary a hitch: no ugly pans and scans, no characters lost offscreen. The industry term for this shooting practice is ”TV safety”; most current Hollywood movies do it. But because Home Alone takes it to an extreme, the film actually looks better on TV.

Making the movie even more TV-friendly are the commercials slapped onto the beginning of this tape: a trailer for the upcoming Twentieth Century Fox feature cartoon FernGully: The Last Rainforest, an American Airlines spot using footage from Home Alone, and a vile little ad promulgating Pepsi as the ideal sexual lure for the preschool set. Part of Home Alone‘s obnoxiously aggressive video promotional campaign (see sidebar), the ads do demonstrate the VCR’s edge over broadcast TV: You can fast-forward right by them.

Even Home Alone‘s humor is video-ready. The most clever gag revolves around Kevin’s use of a VCR, the remote-control ”pause” button, and a creepy gangster tape to freak out both the pizza delivery boy and bumbling burglars Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.

With all the movie’s video compatibility, though, it’s surprising that it doesn’t hold up better to repeat viewings — despite much return theatrical business and despite a low home video price meant to encourage sales over rentals. The more times you watch Home Alone, in fact, the more the story padding shows. Hughes takes his sweet time setting up the situation (Kevin gets left alone), throws in a twist (the stupid thieves), then stalls for well over an hour until the bad guys walk into our hero’s carefully laid booby traps.

That’s when the movie kicks in at last. For 15 fast, surreally violent minutes, Home Alone becomes an outrageous live-action Warner Bros. cartoon, one intended to test your tolerance for imagined pain (kids love it, of course). Pesci and Stern get irons in their faces, have their hair burned off, step on tarantulas, and there’s not a damn thing socially redeeming about it. It’s just funny.

Other than that controversial high point, Home Alone meanders a little more than it should. It also wastes the talents of two of Hollywood’s finest character actors. You’d never know from the thinly written burglars they play here that Pesci won an Oscar this year for GoodFellas and that Stern almost heists the summer hit City Slickers out from under Billy Crystal.

By contrast, the wonderful comic actress Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice) deftly uses the most screen time she’s had in years to become the movie’s emotional center. As Kevin’s mother she has to bribe airplane passengers, browbeat international operators, and hitch a ride with a polka band (led by John Candy, in a guest shot) just to get back home, but the character would still be a generic TV mom — June Cleaver with a mission — if not for O’Hara’s luminous nutball intensity.

The real reason behind Home Alone‘s gargantuan success, of course, is the unforced, marble-mouthed performance of Macaulay Culkin, a kid whose naturalism is the obverse of every tiny prime-time wiseass from Dennis the Menace to Steve Urkel. Whether tiptoeing carefully through his empty suburban castle, gruffly calculating battle plans, or blinking in thought like a newly hatched cartoon duck, Culkin is a delightful find — and just enough of a ham to seem like a real kid. He’s the reason this complacent piece of puff finally feels bigger than TV. B

Home Alone
  • Movie
  • 103 minutes