City Paper is not for tourists
With the Cold War having ended in a forfeit, most Americans just wanted to cocoon in the sort of suburban cul-de-sac where the spotting of an outsider is a major event. To suburban zeitgeist-monger John Hughes, the country was a pre-pubescent boy who stayed home while his foolish family went to decadent Paris, leaving him alone to battle the outsiders who dared attempt to steal a piece of his upscale patrimony. For the American suburbanite, no other battle could be so primal.
True, Home Alone 2 reiterated the first movie’s plot in bustling Manhattan, city of strangers, where our hero extended his beneficent wisdom beyond his literal neighbors to a homeless woman. This didn’t ring true, however, and the film got most of its juice from the same pitiless slapstick violence that made the first one so popular with pre-pubescent boys. In Hughes’ universe, brutalizing strangers makes more dramatic sense than befriending them.
Returning to his franchise five years later, Hughes and director Raja Gosnell take a back-to-basics approach. They have new villains and a new 8-year-old, Alex (Alex D. Linz, who’s both less distinctive and less annoying than Macaulay Culkin), but otherwise this is a rewrite of the first film. The only thing salvaged from the second one is the fact that the family home is under partial renovation, which gives Alex leave to trash walls and floors without risk of parental disfavor. Of course, Alex could probably count on a grateful nation to cover any damages. For this time the kid’s battling that bane of contemporary Hollywood, the band of vaguely foreign international terrorists. The actors who portray this black-clad, oddly accented crew even have suspicious names like Olek Krupa and Rya Kihlstedt. (The latter is identified by the movie’s publicists as a “film newcomer,” but she was the star of the arty Alchemy, seen in October at the Key.)
As a perfunctory prologue explains, Alex ends up with a toy car that conceals an invaluable computer chip purloined from the U.S. Air Force. Afflicted with chicken pox—but conveniently unbothered by symptoms—Alex is left alone as the bad guys track the chip to his neighborhood. That America itself is at stake is signified by the names of the unmean streets where Alex’s family lives: Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and so on. “This is my neighborhood,” declares Alex. “This is my house. No matter how big or strong they are, they can’t beat me here.” Red Dawn couldn’t have said it better, and neither can Cartoon Boyfriend, whose “My Town” offers this xenophobic message on the soundtrack as Alex prepares for war: “This is my town/Watch your step if you come around/I don’t think I know you.”
Alex, of course, is right about his invincibility. As the four foreigners attack, the kid and his two allies—an agile white rat and a quick-thinking parrot—clobber, electrocute, and freeze their antagonists. In deference to the tastes of pre-pubescent boys, Alex takes care to devise many indignities for the crotch and buttock regions of his adversaries. He doesn’t, however, shoot them. When Alex finds one of the terrorists’ guns, he unhesitatingly drops it in the trash.
Home Alone 3 could have rallied a certain audience, of course, if Alex had turned out to be an NRA-trained marksman capable of picking off the foreigners with an (unregistered) assault rifle. Like all savvy Hollywood shlockmeisters, however, Hughes deftly combines conservative naughtiness and liberal niceness. Alex’s mom may have rightly taught him not to play with guns, but it’s her fault that her youngest son is home alone at all: “It shouldn’t be this way,” mourns Alex’s mom after her boss insists she come to work. (There’s never any discussion of the possibility that dad might stay home.) “It’s OK,” comforts Alex. “It’s the times.” That’s characteristic of the movie’s cuddly isolationism: Mothers should stay home with their kids, but just in case they can’t, perhaps it’s time to add foreign-terrorist attacks to the family-leave act.
A stalwart defense of another aspect of the sacred hearth, For Richer or Poorer sends a bickering platinum-card Manhattan couple to an Amish community to discover the value of matrimony. Since Brad (Tim Allen) is initially more taken with the rustic life than is his wife Caroline (Kirstie Alley)—and since both are on the run from an overzealous IRS agent (Larry Miller) who opened fire on Brad on Wall Street—the movie plays as a sort of Green Acres Under the Gun. Brad and Caroline haven’t had sex in more than three years, but naturally they end up rediscovering Petticoat Junction.
Brad and Caroline haven’t really done anything wrong; they’re wanted by the feds because of liberties taken by their embezzling tax accountant (Jurassic Park weasel Wayne Knight) without their knowledge. Still, they are guilty of being vulgar, materialistic, and out of touch with the wonder of creation. Brad is a real estate developer who has taunted God with a plan for a religion-based theme park, while Caroline is a shallow, chain-smoking, shopaholic socialite. (She’s so mercenary that her pals include Marla Maples.) Brad and Caroline maintain separate bedrooms and are contemplating divorce when they arrive in Intercourse, Pa.—one of those readymade Pennsylvania Dutch gags scripters Jana Howington and Steve LuKanic couldn’t resist—with the IRS on their heels. There they pose as Jacob and Emma Yoder, cousins of a sturdy Amish family, whose austerity is soon revealed to be the basis of an idyllic existence.
As usual in glib fish-out-of-water comedies, both sides benefit from the culture clash. Caroline/Emma stages a fashion show for the community elders, winning permission for the women to wear brightly colored clothing; Brad/Jacob takes on the local real estate brokers, who are used to cheating the mild-mannered Amish, getting a bargain price for a young bridegroom who’s buying land for his new farm. Meanwhile, the city slickers learn the satisfactions of honest labor and—inspired by the example of the engaged couple—fall back in love.
We’re supposed to realize that Brad and Caroline never really lost their love; they were just distracted by their avaricious lifestyles. “It’s easy to take things for granted,” explains the Amish family’s wise patriarch (Jay O. Sanders), cluing Brad in to the blessings of agrarian life. (This moral might be more convincing if it were accompanied by a shot of the film’s producers turning their Malibu estates into homeless shelters.) Director Bryan Spicer is a big-screen-sitcom veteran (he did McHale’s Navy), and he skillfully uses gliding camera moves and extensive exteriors to prove that this isn’t made-for-TV product. Such efforts are in vain, however, with a movie whose narrative itinerary is so predictable that after 20 minutes sitcom watchers will probably be able to guess the content of the final line.