Even in a World of Soulless Reboots, Home Sweet Home Alone Is Astoundingly Miscalculated

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Even in a World of Soulless Reboots, <i>Home Sweet Home Alone</i> Is Astoundingly Miscalculated

No one in their right mind would be entering the experience of viewing Home Sweet Home Alone on Disney+ with any pronounced degree of expectation or irrational optimism. This is, after all, a feature film from director Dan Mazer, the architect behind such gems as 2016’s Robert De Niro-starring Dirty Grandpa, produced on what looks like a TV budget to become just another piece of tawdry holiday content gathering dust in the Disney+ library for 11 months out of the year. Expectations for such a cynically thrown-together attempt to mine the nostalgia of 1990’s Home Alone could scarcely be any lower, to the point that all this film had to do in order to raise no fuss would be to surpass the dregs that already exist in the franchise—everything from 1997’s Home Alone 3 to the two made-for-TV installments in 2002 and 2012. A likeable child actor, a few bumbling crooks, a little schmaltz and an array of slapstick traps—that shouldn’t be too hard to replicate, right?

How, then, does any modern film, even one relegated to streaming hell, manage to fundamentally misunderstand its task as catastrophically as Home Sweet Home Alone? What was essentially a free throw of an assignment, the kind of project that any competent screenwriter could sleepwalk through—the film was written by Mikey Day and Streeter Seidell—instead makes narrative choices so confounding that we now find ourselves here, driven to dissect them in greater depth almost against our will. This film was meant to be mindless entertainment; instead it’s a baffling exercise in modernization without purpose. Every attempt it makes to update some aspect of Home Alone for 2021 only succeeds in sapping some other aspect of the screenplay. Alternate title: Home Alone: Holiday Husk.

No decision made in the writing of Home Sweet Home Alone causes such an impressive cascade of problems as the fundamental reframing of our would-be antagonists, who in previous installments of the series have ranged from bumbling cat burglars to well-heeled international terrorists. Here, the duo of “Jeff and Pam” (Rob Delaney and Ellie Kemper) are merely harried suburban parents, audience proxies for the millions of millennials who grew up watching the original John Hughes/Chris Columbus films in the 1990s and now find themselves raising kids of their own in modest suburban ranch houses. Fallen upon hard times, Jeff and Pam secretly put their house on the market, ashamed of the fact that they can no longer afford their kids’ beloved home, before realizing that their salvation has apparently been sitting under their roof the whole time, in the form of a rare porcelain doll/MacGuffin worth several hundred thousand dollars to the right weirdos on the Antiques Roadshow circuit. But alas, the doll has now gone missing, and right after a cheeky little British boy toured the home and commented on it … guess we’d better break into the young man’s house, right?

If it sounds odd to begin an examination of Home Sweet Home Alone by focusing on the motivations of Jeff and Pam, rather than 12-year-old Archie Yates as aforementioned British boy/Kevin McAllister replacement Max Mercer, it’s equally disconcerting to see the film likewise focus the majority of its attention and screen time on them. They’re the first characters we meet, a choice that sets the tone for a story that is utterly uninterested in the character promoted as its protagonist throughout all the marketing. In fact, this simply isn’t the story of a young boy left home alone by his family, forced to defend his home from marauders. Rather, it’s the story of two well-intentioned but idiotic parents who cajole each other to break into what they believe is an empty home to retrieve their own property, only to be met by a deeply unlikeable little asshole who subjects them to a smorgasbord of physical punishment as the result of a series of misunderstandings. Why the writers thought the intended audience of nostalgic millennials would want to see their own avatars savaged by a characterless blank of a child is impossible to say, but that’s what Mazer delivers.

home-sweet-home-alone-kemper-face-inset.jpg An expression that conveys exactly how the audience is feeling.

It boggles the mind to think that, somewhere in the brainstorming process for this film, it was decided that what Home Alone really needed were sympathetic home intruders and an unsympathetic little boy setting traps for them. “Max Mercer” barely even registers as a character in this—all we know or understand of him is that he’s rude to strangers, self-absorbed, but simultaneously annoyed by his even louder and more irritating extended family, most of whom are never even introduced. We spend so little time getting into the kid’s headspace that it’s impossible to feel any kinship or warmth toward him, and instead he simply comes off as every bit the jerk that Uncle Frank once accused Kevin of being. Keep in mind that we were given actual reasons to commiserate with Kevin, from his uncaring older siblings and cousins, to his overactive imagination and fear of the basement, to his misadventures in toothbrush retail or shaving etiquette. Macaulay Culkin was given ample opportunity to charm an audience as the viewpoint character, heart and soul of Home Alone. Archie Yates, on the other hand, possesses not an ounce here of the bashful charm that was present in Jojo Rabbit, nor is he being pitted against foes that do the dynamic any favors. It’s easy to root for the kid wielding deadly weapons against The Wet Bandits when they say (hilarious) things like “Santy don’t visit the funeral homes, little buddy.” Turn the same violence against a Mom and Dad trying to save Christmas for their kids, and is there any question of why this feels so deeply strange?

Nor does the film even seem aware of the principles by which one might get a laugh with slapstick comedy itself. Allow me to lend a helping hand by pointing out the difference in two very similar bits between this film and the original:

— Example A: In Home Alone, Marv triggers a trap by pulling the string of a lightbulb, which causes an iron to fall down a shaft, striking him in the face with a satisfying, cartoonish CLANG. He’s left with the red outline of an iron on his face, neatly imprinted like something that might have happened to Wile E. Coyote, and the logic is much the same—the gruesome real-world consequences of such an action have been held at a distance through the use of cartoon logic, leaving the audience free to laugh at the harmless visual. Kevin’s clever trap has raised our esteem for his intelligence, while also having a comedic payoff.

— Example B: In Home Sweet Home Alone, Jeff enters the home to find Max wielding some kind of compressed air cannon that shoots billiard balls, immediately taking one between the eyes. Beyond the fact that this really isn’t a “trap,” and does little if anything to increase our perception of Max’s ingenuity, it’s the physical results that are genuinely disturbing. Jeff rises from the floor with a gnarly hematoma rising from the center of his forehead, a weeping goose egg that indicates the clear brain damage he has no doubt suffered at the hands of a kid who will months from now be headlining a self-defense show trial, insisting that he had no choice but to visit a traumatic head injury on this father of three. Gone is the distance that makes the similar joke safe to chuckle at in 1990—why would anyone choose to portray the results of slapstick mischief in such a grotesquely realistic way, which the crew reportedly had a hard time even looking at, especially when it’s happening to a character the audience is meant to identify with? Would these same writers have had the blowtorch gag from the original Home Alone blast the flesh from Harry’s skull, while simultaneously informing us that he really needs this score in order to feed his box full of orphaned kittens back home?

home-alone-wet-bandits-inset.jpg If only Harry’s scalp could have been entirely covered in third degree burns, then we’d really have something worthy of a 2021 Home Alone installment.

This dissonance between our understanding of the inherent spirit of the Home Alone franchise and what is actually delivered accounts most directly for the feeling of aimlessness that strikes one while watching Home Sweet Home Alone, but it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of other individual moments or choices that might leave one feeling equally flabbergasted. For instance, many sections appear to be shot as if they’re intended for 3D presentation, shamelessly shooting objects directly toward the camera/audience like we’ve not progressed an iota since 1982’s Friday the 13th Part III—this despite the fact that I can’t find any reference to the film having a 3D version. Or there’s the BMW product placement, so lazily dumped on screen that it makes one pine for the charmingly guileless advertising of the Talkboy throughout Home Alone 2—at least that was a product a child might actually covet, rather than the millennial parent. Even the film’s score is completely at odds with itself, unable to decide if it wants to simply and slavishly reproduce verbatim music from John Williams’ 1990 original work, or bastardize that same score with “new” material so similar that it should require a legally-distinct-from precursor.

On paper, one might look at Home Sweet Home Alone and think it might at least be saved by the presence of a cast full of stand-out comedy character actors, but once again the film has no interest in letting any of those people do any actual work. Andy Daly, beloved star of the perennially underrated Comedy Central cult comedy Review, plays Max’s non-British father and manages what I’d conservatively estimate as three lines of audible dialogue in the movie. Kenan Thompson hams it up briefly as Jeff and Pam’s realtor, who seems like he’s going to become a primary character for a moment but then disappears entirely. And in the most grating of all wasted appearances, Chris Parnell literally walks through one scene as a character who is apparently Max’s uncle, never to be seen again. Later in the film, his disembodied voice is briefly heard from behind a door. This is the extent of material the writers put together for Chris Parnell in Home Sweet Home Alone, the rest of it presumably excised so we could spend more time feeling pity for Jeff and Pam before they have more head injuries visited on them. The only characters the film is interested in are the ones it intends to brutalize.

There is no doubt meant to be some kind of commentary on classism made by this Home Alone, an inversion of the first film’s dynamic that sees the millennial stand-ins backed by audience empathy as they buffet themselves against the ivory towers of the kind of wealthy suburbanites who could afford the McMansion digs possessed by the likes of the McCallisters in the original film. But to make that commentary within the structure of a Home Alone movie—a series in which “the kid” has always been our viewpoint character, not to mention the focus of this entire ad campaign—is pure lunacy, jamming an impossible task into the worst possible delivery vehicle for such a moral. Why not make a Free Willy reboot next, but the whale is kind of an asshole and the protagonists are a mother and father pair of poachers who need a big score in order to keep the bank from repossessing their houseboat and adorable children?

Being asked to conceive an outline for Home Sweet Home Alone should have been a surpassingly simple task, in which producers only really needed to focus on solid casting and engaging performances. Instead, the result is an abject disaster, destined for the rubbish bin of holiday movie infamy. We look forward to the next clever subversion of the franchise a decade from now, which will presumably be a film about a kid who just goes on a pleasant vacation with his parents, free from incident.