COMEDY: Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (USA, 1992)
Directed by Chris Columbus
Starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, John Heard

In my review of Beverly Hills Cop II, I spoke at great length about Hollywood's tendency to demand 'more of the same' when faced with a successful film - whether that success was anticipated or not. I described it as Simpson and Bruckheimer "at their most lazy and cynical. Everything that can be recycled is recycled, so that beat for beat and plot point for plot point, there is almost nothing between the two films" - nothing, that is, unless you count Tony Scott's penchant for explosions and bare flesh.
If Beverly Hills Cop II was the most blatant (and contemptuous) example of 'more of the same' that the 1980s could offer, than Home Alone 2: Lost in New York deserves the same crown for the 1990s. The career-making success of the original film, for both its star Macaulay Culkin and its director Chris Columbus, meant that a follow-up was as inevitable as the tides. But even after more than 15 years, it's quite staggering how little effort went into bringing anything new to the table, and even on nostalgic terms it's at the very best hanging on the original's coattails.
It's a common tactic among either sequels or spin-off projects to take familiar characters and put them in a new situation - it's a trick that's been tried on everything from Are You Being Served?: The Movie to Sex and the City 2. Fish-out-of-water stories can become tiresome very quickly if they're not anchored itoeither a witty script or good performances, but at the very least., most films which go down this route at least make an effort to emphasise the differences in culture, even if it's just a passing, off-hand comment about how fast people move or the fact that there's no phone signal.
The single biggest problem with Home Alone 2 (as it will hereafter be known) is the contempt it shows for its target audience. It makes precisely zero effort to innovate, either in its plot or its gags, because it presumes that people will pay to see it regardless of the content on the basis that the original was so popular. It even goes so far as deliberately re-staging or replicating the same physical or visual gags as the first film, grotesquely overconfident that lightning will strike twice. Even with a rushed production schedule - during which time a number of the crew's cameras froze while filming the Christmas scenes - there is no excuse for such an appalling attitude.
What's perplexing about this is that screenwriter John Hughes put a lot of effort into writing the sequel. He wrote multiple drafts of the screenplay, and chose New York specifically on the grounds that it was "a great place to lose him. It's a huge city. The kid can get in lots of trouble." Hughes' reputation was still riding high by the time of the first Home Alone, even if audiences' tolerance for his high school teenage archetypes was wearing thin (Heathers contains all the proof you'll need of this). One can only assume that this was the moment where his creative talent began to desert him, and his subsequent screenplays indicate that this was no mere aberration.
Assuming for the moment that Hughes was not as fault (or at least was not deliberately writing terrible material for the sake of a fast buck), then much of the blame for the film's low quality must lie with Columbus. Throughout his career he has been the epitome of 'a safe pair of hands', someone who is good at churning out family-friendly, inoffensive mush which will please studio executives at the cost of dulling an audience's imagination. His overly cautious approach to this material, together with his unremarkable camera work, is a depressing foreshadowing of his work in the ensuing years, whether on the first two Harry Potter films, the first Percy Jackson film, or perhaps most criminally Bicentennial Man.
To this end, Home Alone 2 follows the beats of its predecessor virtually to the letter. We begin in the run-up to Christmas with Kevin's family all getting ready to go on holiday - including a restaging of the alarm clock chaos which wasn't that funny the first time around. We have the contrived series of events to separate Kevin from his family, albeit more elaborately this time, and the mother's hammy realisation that he is missing. There are the all-too-ornate means of Kevin avoiding detection, again relying on clips from old films - a trick that was already old hat before the first film tried it. And we have the slapstick-driven climax - having somehow managed to get Kevin back in an actual house - in which the only sensible moment is the lampshading of the gag with the swinging cans of paint. Columbus admitted on the Home Alone commentary that this film was "to some extent" a remake of the first film. On the basis of how much has been repeated, it's a wonder that he didn't make it a shot-for-shot remake, a la Gus van Sant's pointless version of Psycho.
Not only is Home Alone 2 irritatingly cocky over its retreading of old ground, but the performances are very phoned in. It may seem unfair to pick on Culkin - or on child actors in general - but his delivery in the sequel is very flat and poorly paced; he rushes or mutters his way through many of his lines as though he didn't want to be there. Catherine O'Hara mugs to the camera as Kevin's mother, and the moments in which she has to break the fourth wall are pretty toe-curling. And Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are just copying their work in the first film (which for Pesci is hardly a stretch). The only bright lights in the cast are the reliably watchable Tim Curry as the hotel concierge and Brenda Fricker, who makes the most of her underwritten part of the Pigeon Lady.
This brings us onto the Christmas element of the film. I have already made my views on festive films as clear as is necessary; read my review of The Heart of Christmas or Die Hard if you are need of a refresher. Suffice to say, Home Alone 2 falls into the same sad camp as Elf, celebrating the material benefits of the holiday season and then tacking on a sentimental coda as a half-hearted apology. You might have a point in arguing that this film is less offensive than, for instance, Jingle All The Way, because it focusses on the philanthropy of the toy store owner rather than the latest toy he is selling. But it's still selling an audience short, choosing the easy route to pulling on heartstrings rather than laying the emotional groundwork needed for it to mean something.
The nature of the violence in the Home Alone series has been a bone of contention for some time. Living in an age post-Jackass, where people will willingly be filmed (or film themselves) causing all manner of pain and damage to their bodies, complaining about the violence in Home Alone 2 could come across as quaint. Certainly, you could say, I had no problem with the amount of blood, limbs and other bodily fluids which were scattered across the screen during Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn, so what harm is a few bangs on the head or falls through the floor going to do?
Notwithstanding the fact that Evil Dead 2 is an 18 and this film is a PG, the answer lies in the execution (no pun intended) of said violence. In Evil Dead 2, Sam Raimi made no bones about the film being a slapstick-driven comedy in which we were meant to empathise with the fall guy (Ash). The demented nature of the violence was both scary and absurdly funny, and the moments of physical mutilation were punctuated by routines that wouldn't look out of place in a Three Stooges short. Home Alone 2, by contrast, asks us to actively not care whether the Wet Bandits get hurt or not so long as their pain is funny - and therefore gives itself the license to be as nasty to them as possible on the grounds that their lives don't really matter. Even if you don't buy into the idea that Home Alone was an expression of libertarian, Republican values - in which poor, lazy criminals only got what they deserved - the comedy in this film is hit-and-miss precisely because we don't care enough about the fall guys.
In the midst of all this, there are a couple of redeeming qualities which prevent Home Alone 2 from being a complete disaster (and no, Donald Trump's cameo isn't one of them). For all it story problems, the production values are pretty decent for the day; Julio Macat's cinematography given the New York scenes a glossy sheen, and the snowy sections (much of which was filmed in a real blizzard) are quite pleasant in and of themselves. And while its comedy may often fall flat, the film at least doesn't resort to speeding up the footage or the sound, or other cheap stunts like that.
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York is a poor sequel whose laziness frequently tips over contempt. The sheer lack of effort poured into its plot and character development is frankly shameful, and for all its nostalgic quality it can neither hold a candle to the original nor adequately stand on its own. There are worse films out there which have a Christmas setting, but you would struggle to find one which cares so little about the intelligence of its audience.

NEXT REVIEW: Toy Story 2 (1999)