“The school is not quite deserted,” said the Ghost. “A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.” — Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol” (1843)
The quaint little village of Winnetka, Illinois is not an area that would be confused with a Victorian slum. Winnetka (where, like every installment before it, the fifth* Home Alone edition is set) claims the title of one of the wealthiest places in the United States in terms of household income. Prior to crapping out this review, I decided to see what a three bed, three bath was going for in ye olde village and was delighted to find a listing for a home of that size at the sadly normal-ish price of $600,000. Yes, true, that is twice the price of my own modest abode, but my abode doesn’t have three bathrooms — we have two bathrooms (one of which has only a bath (no shower) and one that has only a shower (no bath) but I should mention the shower is weirdly located outside the actual bathroom). At any rate, 600K seemed within reason for the average rich — but not Elon Musk-level rich — person. “What’s all this claptrap about household income,” I said to myself, putting down my hammer and sickle, and clicking on the link.
The house you are looking at in the image above is not the 600,000 dollar house. That house I’m saving for later. For now, just know that the reincarnation of Kevin McCallister lives in a house that is the twin of the house above. I’m not being cheeky. He lives in a house whose girth and gadgets rival the dwelling and spoils which the Ghost of Christmas Present scatters at the feet of Ebenezer Scrooge. (N.B. If you haven’t read Charles Dickens’s Victorian masterpiece, “A Christmas Carol” — please forego your family viewing of any xmas film (with smart phones in everyone’s hands) and conduct a family reading (sans smart phones, sans smart lights, sans everything) immediately.) To be fair, I realize the McCallister family of Home Alone and Home Alone 2 was a rich family. Quite rich indeed. But the house of Home Sweet Home Alone hits different. Maybe it’s due to the present ecological collapse we’re living amidst, maybe it’s the awareness of how many people are working their asses off to pay for a one-bedroom apartment (unable to put a dime into savings or, god-help-us, retirement), maybe it’s the looming climate crisis that intends to jettison us all with equanimity — I don’t know — all I know is this monstrosity of architecture and taste didn’t endear me to the McCallisters of 2021.
The matriarch, for all her English charm (the family (?) is English) is no Catherine O’Hara. She’s not even Haviland Morris. (Who is actually fantastic, so no dig intended.) She’s… sort of like Emma Stone (who I also do enjoy) with some of the hammy facial expressions, pursed lips, darting irises, slightly gravelly voice, and odd vacancy that you try to imagine is necessary for the character, and not vaguely distracting.
The foil family for the very rich McCallisters — here’s why Winnetka matters — the foil family also lives in Winnetka. And they’ve fallen on hard times. Not hellish. Not Victorian slum-level. But, laid-off during the pandemic level. Downsize level. Which sucks. I’ll grant that. They are a family of four. Kids are tweens. No one wants to tell their kids: Say bye-bye to Winnetka and hello to Wausau. But, again — our ‘poor’ family lives in WINNETKA. OK. So now we know the range of this movie. Rich Dad, Richer Dad. (Off camera the rest of us are ripping one another’s eyeballs out for the health insurance plan that only takes half your paycheck and has a deductible of $6000. Plus a copay.)
I can’t recall the surname of the poor family, so we’ll call them The Delaneys. We learn that the fam’s patriarch, played by Rob Delaney (love) has lost his job. Mom (played by Ellie Kemper, who… ) is an elementary teacher. (Aside: How the H did they ever afford Winnetka? I’m a teacher and my salary is so low I qualified for a grant program for low-income homebuyers. So, yeah. No make sense to me. But maybe they they had an accident on a ride at Universal Studios, like my friend in Chappaqua, and don’t need to work again for the next decade). Either way, their two children are tweens who take Ubers home from the movies and are going to “the best schools in the state.” The workhouse is within smelling distance. Yes — the high premium, high deductible plan is calling their name. And soon they’ll be living in Wausau with the rest of us. But for now, they’re clinging to their zip code and putting the groceries on credit. (I don’t know if they’re using credit, actually. I’m projecting.)
OK, how to get this vehicle moving? Well, long story short, the “Kevin” of 2021 and his mother stop by Rob and Ellie’s house one afternoon — during an open house — because “Kevin” has to pee and he’s had “six refills of soda” so we know it’s an emergency. (This confirms they aren’t country. I literally pick up my son from Kindergarten (no bus, worker shortage due to shit wages/working conditions/pandemic/etc) and every day we pull away from school and drive two blocks “so no one can see us,” and he opens the door, stands on the edge of the vehicle, and pees into the wind.) It bears mentioning that six sodas should sound concerning to us but is one of many, many details in this film that you’re left to worry about on your own. So, after the boy comes out of the bathroom, he runs into the home owner/Poor Dad/Rob Delaney, who is cleaning out a closet, and they have an inexplicably aggressive tête-à-tête about the contents of the closet boxes (i.e., old dolls, especially one in particular). They rap about this doll which has its head sewed on upside down. Soon enough Mum comes along to verify that the weird doll is quite valuable. She verbally tussles with her son briefly then ferries him away in their BMW SUV.
The BMW is where the son wakes up the next day (he’d gone there to retreat from his castle as there were too many cousins playing with expensive toys) and realizes — me family has fled to Tokyo for the holidays without me — yippee! Meanwhile, the Delaneys (that’s what we’re still calling them) are waking up to the nightmare that is life in Winnetka. But there’s more! Thanks to Mr. Delaney’s late night job search/foray onto ebay, we know that the strange little doll is worth $200,000 — and has suddenly gone missing from the closet box!
The rest of the film is about their attempt to reclaim the doll.
You’ll be happy to hear that the booby traps we’ve come to expect and physical comedy we love — the lighting on fire of live human beings, pool balls shot from cannons into foreheads, nerf guns that spit tacks, trampoline mishaps — it’s all there. “Kevin” thinks they’re trying to kidnap him, so he’s ready with his endless arsenal of expensive goods. However. It doesn’t feel as funny as Harry and Marv getting doused with turpentine and sent to the clink. Why? They were presented to us as bumbling (but lovable) crooks who were all too happy to scare, dispense, and/or shoot a kid (the original Kevino). Here, we have a different set up. At some point you realize you’re watching a Dickensian/Bong Joon-ho Reality TV Show. The plot is avoid-debtor’s-prison/keep your house by enduring a super rich person’s demented series of physical challenges.
It’s hard to know who or what to care about in this film. It’s sort of like life in that way. Our phones, endless screens (there are a lot of screens in the backgrounds (or foregrounds) of various scenes in this film) and our amassing of crap have zapped us of any semblance of meaning outside of the instantaneous rush we get when we press “confirm” on an online purchase. When that’s not enough, we watch Squid Game and Reality TV and marvel at it (while real life, real people, real animals, real weather beckons from further and further away…) It’s not enough. We need the most extreme and instantaneous sensations. Or maybe we don’t. We don’t know what we need. Our nervous systems are blown. What matters? The baby suckling at my breast, or the social media feed I’m scrolling through? The poems I used to read, or the memes I cycle past, half-smiling? The rituals and customs and traditions of my grandparents, and their grandparents, and their grandparents, or this “like” from a stranger?
I think if you’ve noticed the most popular shows seem to be a meditation on this theme. The zeitgeist seems to be settled.
* Got $600,000 burning a hole in your pocket? The Winnetka House mentioned in Paragraph One is pictured below.
A Few More Notes:
- Religion and religious symbolism and references play a huge role in the first Home Alone. At this point in the franchise, religion is nodded to, but in bizarre, half-assed, and/or hollow ways (more on this below). The best line, hands-down of the movie is uttered by a man who is possibly the nanny for the super rich McCallisters, or an assistant of some kind for Mom, or an uncle? At any rate, when “Kevin” is found to be missing, he says something like “I don’t know. We all make mistakes. Call one of the neighbors. Activate the prayer chain.” (Epic.)
- There is a bell-ringing choir scene that takes place at a residential home for the elderly. The Delaney parents — Rob and Ellie — play hand-bells in the choir. This whole set-up is meant as instant comedy. It felt a little like punching down, but also I’ll admit I’m biased. I did this exact ‘gig’ throughout my (Lutheran) childhood, so I was actually interested in this scene. Obvi, the sheer idea of playing hand bells at a senior care facility is COMEDY GOLD — but is it? When the choir director says, “This is my life choice,” we’re supposed to go: “Haha, Loser!” But I thought: What a good dude. (FWIW, my dad used to call my bell choir “Bells a’Poppin’” — I don’t know, either.)
- There is a scene where the Delaney family goes to church. Makes no sense to me. Doesn’t feel like they’re church goers. Mainly because a whole lotta people aren’t, but for some reason, it just feels weird as hell. The daughter is in the choir and is wearing a Jessica McClintock prom dress 2.0 (a recent gift from her aunt, but… No way she would wear that to church. Wardrobe person has some ‘splainin to do). Oh! Wait, I know why them as church goers felt weird. While they’re at church, they see “Kevin” in the back lobby area, where an XMAS toy drive is happening. An older woman who is back there running the toy drive is talking to him. The Delaneys notice him and Ellie asks, “That’s him, but who’s the old lady?” Um, no. If you’re going to this church/members and your daughter is in the choir, you’d know who that was. On the off chance you didn’t know, you wouldn’t refer to her with the hilarious (me: bored face) epithet: the old lady.
- The mother of “Kevin” is a Karen. I’ve never called anyone a Karen before. But now I have. She’s unpleasant, rude and demeaning to all customer service people. There is a particularly effed up scene with her dressing down an airline attendant at the flight gate in Tokyo. (It’s cringey, quasi xenophobic and racist, IMHO.) I want to root for MOM — in spite of or partially because of her character flaws (we all have them!) the way I rooted for Catherine O’Hara — but I find myself repelled by her. And I can’t root for a white woman who pantomimes language at an international airport, grabs an employee and woman of color, and demands immediate service. Just, not here for that character defect.
- Rob and Ellie’s marriage is more complicated than the original union. It’s not like anyone is having an affair or 100% emotionally checked out. No, it’s just the stress of finances and the impending exodus. I am here to tell you — that shit can test a marriage. So, yes, I mean, no. This couple can’t have the easy, joie de vivre that the McCallisters of yesteryear had. Why? Because the 2021 edition (Rob and Ellie) aren’t multimillionaires who fly first class to Paris. They have the looming reality of Wausau, Wisconsin staring them in the face. Real talk: financial stress fucks with people. They’ve studied this.
- And yet the superrich couple are also lacking all semblance of love. They have one scene where they speak to each other, and it’s through a locked door in a very, very luxe hotel suite in Tokyo. It’s unclear how these two people feel about each other, but when Mom splits for the airport to go find her son, she doesn’t consult with or apprise Dad. He can be heard saying something like, “Where did she go?” It seems a far cry from the tender, affectionate embrace of the original couple in the setting sun of Gate 22A at Charles De Gaulle.
- When Rob and Ellie first break in they accidentally destroy a very nice-looking kiddie play house. Neither mentions it or seems troubled by it. They sashay onward, unperturbed. This may seem not worth mentioning. But it doesn’t make sense. People who are keenly aware of money, are keenly aware when shit gets fucked up. (They know it will cost money. They actually know the price of most everything that’s happening in their lives. (How do I know? Did I mention I’m a teacher?)) Anyone, even a Winnetka-slummin couple, is going to remark upon the fact they destroyed a fancy kid shed.
- We see that the Delaneys drive a minivan. Again, this is meant to elicit sympathy. (“OH daMN! They drive a minivan? Shit! That SUCKS.”) However, myself and three other parents I know (all teachers) bought our gently-used minivans with COVID relief funds we got (thanks to falling below a certain income threshold) during the global pandemic. And our minivans are not only NOT the bummer of our lives, they are our everything. Aside: In Eleventh-Grade Social Studies, I remember reading a letter a woman wrote to the SEARS Company when she got her first stove. She was overcome with joy, wonder, and gratitude. That is literally how I felt (and feel) about my used minivan (formerly owned by a smoker).
- There is no one to root for in this film.
- Except maybe the in-laws of the Delaneys. Who are supposed to be awful (?) but are incredibly generous, attention-giving, and loving to their niece and nephew. (Meanwhile, the Delaney parents are dismissive, annoyed, and/or disgusted towards their young nephew. They’re also rude and judgmental to Rob’s brother’s wife, who is Asian, and while it’s sort of like, I don’t know, maybe I’m reading it wrong… I felt like, Naaaaahhhh… )
- And, yet, of course you want the Delaneys to keep their house. To do this, they must get their doll. Thus get the 200K they rightfully have coming. As mentioned above, when they breach the perimeter and the new “Kevin” begins his assault, we are prepared to laugh, to cackle, to be whisked away into the fantasy world of film (where Road Runner meep-meeps and anvils drop on Wylie Coyote, over and over, and somehow he keeps getting up, resuming his eternal labors of the damned). However, you can’t take any serious delight or tee-hee humor in the pain of the Delaneys. When Ellie’s feet are set on fire, there is no secret “Yesssss” coming from our lips. Only the horror at what this monster called capitalism has done to us. What lengths we are willing to go to. This is not a light-hearted romp through the highways and byways of Winnetka, with a Christlike figure who explains “you’re never too old to be afraid” while listening to children’s choir practice in a gorgeous cathedral at dusk in a mystical time and place called the 1990s. No. We are firmly in 2021. We are living in disaster capitalism, runaway greed, and bottomless consumption. When shit happens in this movie, yes, sometimes we’re laughing, but only because it’s an old habit. When Ellie Kemper starts sobbing in the snow after she extinguishes the flames which have LITERALLY licked her boots, we feel like: Ah, the film now makes sense. Sobbing. Defeat. Despair. Yes. Finally things are in some kind of symmetry or alignment. But the moment doesn’t last, the hijinks resume — and a new awareness opens up. What if we are all on a reality TV show? In this season’s episodes, we are trying to survive an economy that works for the very few. (Dickens had a few thoughts about such a system.) The very rich are protected from the realities of being human. And even they, despite a house that is the equivalent of the GDP of Burundi, are nonetheless utterly, completely — and predictably — miserable.
* I guess this was the sixth installment. Not the fifth.