To cut to the inevitable: Yes, Macaulay Culkin, the towheaded young megastar of Home Alone, kicks the bucket in My Girl — and no, the big event won’t be nearly as devastating to little ones (at least not to those over the age of 8) as, say, Bambi’s mother getting gunned down by hunters. This will come as a relief to many parents, but it’s also a testament to the emotional level at which My Girl operates. The movie unfolds in TV Land, that clean, well-lighted place where life comes in episodes and there isn’t a tragedy that can’t be resolved in 17 minutes.
Culkin isn’t actually the star. He plays the best friend of Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky), a cutely precocious 11-year-old who is having a rather difficult summer. Vada, an only child, lives in a handsome, big-roomed house that also happens to be a funeral parlor. Her father, the kindly, distracted Harry (Dan Aykroyd), is a mortician who does his embalming right in the basement. It’s no wonder Vada has death on the brain. Exuberantly smart and creative (she dreams of being a writer), she’s also a wee hypochondriac who’s always scurrying off to the town doc to see if she’s got prostate cancer or a chicken bone stuck in her throat. It isn’t just her dad’s creepy profession that’s getting her down. Vada’s mother died in childbirth, and Vada is drowning in guilt about it, imagining that she’s the one who killed her. When Harry hires a new cosmetologist, Shelly (Jamie Lee Curtis), and proceeds to fall in love with her, the kid feels abandoned.
None of this is particularly farfetched. Yet there’s something discomforting about a movie that takes the experience of an audacious, conflicted child and reduces it to: She needs to Confront Her Feelings. My Girl has some sweet, funny moments (the cast is uniformly appealing), yet it unfolds in a landscape of paralyzing, pop-psych banality.
The movie is set in 1972, which means that there are lots of late-’60s chestnuts on the soundtrack and that Jamie Lee Curtis’ Shelly gets to walk around dressed like a hippie bimbo. At first, she seems like an original character: a quick-witted counterculture divorcee. But as soon as she and Harry commence their courtship by playing bingo, we realize we’re going to have to watch yet another movie about two lovable nerds discovering that, shucks, they kinda like each other. For at least the third time this year (after Only the Lonely and The Fisher King), it’s Marty redux. To me, Aykroyd has never come across as a straight actor; he somehow manages to seem at once hammy and constrained. But here, looking more like a plastic punching doll than ever, he has some tender moments. And Curtis gives a warm, friendly performance.
Still, it’s Anna Chlumsky’s movie. This young actress is almost too adorable for comfort — with her budding-fashion-model eyes, she might have been drawn by Walter Keane — but she has an affecting vulnerability, and she manages something rare in a child performer: You constantly see Vada’s mind working, yet she never seems like a coy show-off. She’s earnest, confused; she’s desperately trying to sort things out. If only the movie didn’t pile on conflicts like a Freudian layer cake. By the time Culkin’s character dies (it happens so casually that it’s almost as if he’d moved away), My Girl seems to be manipulating the fate of its characters simply to teach Vada lessons. In TV Land, what appears to be dramatic opportunism may simply be laziness. C+