In Defense of Home Alone 3 (1997) — Diamonds in the Rough

Diamonds in the Rough (DitR, /dɪ’tər/) takes some of the most derided, divisive, controversial, financially catastrophic, and meme-worthy movies and tries to find the silver lining. Bad movies don’t always start as bad ideas, and flops aren’t always flop-worthy. DitR seeks to find the good within the bad, because the world could use some positivity. And when all else fails, making fun of bad movies is oh-so satisfying.

In this installment, court is in session, as I will be defending Raja Gosnell’s 1997 sequel Home Alone 3.

 

Home Alone 3

  • Rotten Tomatoes: 29% (24 critics) | 27% (448,875 user ratings)
  • IMDb: 4.5/10 (101,483 ratings)
  • Letterboxd: 2.0/5 (24,174 ratings)

 

Recently, given our current state of pandemic, the good ol’ boys at The Worst Idea of All Time podcast decided to watch Home Alone 3 every three days until quarantine was over. It is a tall, masochistic order, to be certain, but nothing that Tim Batt and Guy Montgomery are strangers to. For those unfamiliar, The Worst Idea of All Time is a podcast in which the two New Zealand comedians watch the same (bad) movie every week for a year. They have covered Grown Ups 2, both of the Sex and the City feature films, and the Zac Efron DJ vehicle We Are Your Friends. They have also engaged in various smaller experiments, such as watching Cats in the theaters every day for a week and joining the McElroy brothers in the quest of watching Paul Blart Mall Cop 2 once a year until they die.

The podcast has been around for a while, in different incarnations, at this point, and it is inarguable that they have a larger fanbase than this site. As such, my recommendation will mean little. But all the same, if you’re reading this and haven’t heard of TWIOAT already, then I will say it is something worth checking out.

In Diamonds in the Rough, my own sort of miniseries of cinematic masochism, I try to unpack traditionally disregarded or divisive films into their component parts in an attempt to separate out whatever wheat there is among the chaff. In the case of Home Alone 3, I was not expecting a harvest. Yet here we are.

I begin with TWIOAT for several reasons. For one, it is the reason I subjected myself to Home Alone 3 in the first place (not, thankfully, every three days for the foreseeable future). Secondly, the first episode of the podcast’s new season introduces a similar qualitative debate to what DitR strives to engage in, with Guy Montgomery enjoying the film much more than the more nostalgic Tim Batt.

Their basic disagreement comes down to the first two Home Alone films. Batt finds it difficult to wrap his head around Home Alone 3 when he sees the cast as inferior, whereas Montgomery believes you will get lost in a quagmire if you try to stack Home Alone 3 up against the previous two installments. I agree with Guy, and I would go a step further. In certain respects, I think Home Alone 3 is doing better work than Home Alone 2.

[Editor’s Note: This disagreement occurs in the first episode of the Home Alone 3 season of TWIOAT. This was the only episode referenced prior to writing this article. In subsequent episodes, Guy Montgomery comes to qualify his argument, realizing that the movie is, on repeat viewing, not very good. I would like to reflect this back here: Home Alone 3 is NOT good on repeat viewing. Please, for your safety and others, do not watch Home Alone 3 more than one (1) time within a short period of time.]

Having recently watched Home Alone and its first two sequels back to back to back, I have to say that Home Alone 3 is no more silly and childishly slapstick than the first two films. There is enough wacky, juvenile fun to be had in Home Alone 3 to warrant its existence beyond what might have initially been a thankless cash grab. Not to mention—and this is going to be a hot take for those viewing Home Alone with rosy, nostalgic glasses—I don’t think any of the Home Alone films are particularly great.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Home Alone has its moments, both iconic and genuinely cinematic (in a Looney Tunes sort of way). And Macaulay Culkin’s star-making performance is charming, it is hard to deny. I am not here to disparage what some people hold dear (but some of the film’s visuals and editing are truly ugly, and the sheer unlikability of nearly every character makes it an even uglier experience). That said, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York isn’t getting off the hook as easily.

Home Alone 2 is undeniably a retread of Home Alone, just with an inflated budget. That is my least favorite brand of sequel—the “bigger but familiar” approach, if you will. The action moves from the Chicago suburbs to the sprawling city of New York, from an upper middle class home to the glitzy Plaza Hotel. However, we follow the same characters hitting the exact same plot beats as the first film. The hi-jinks, too, is replicated yet inflated. In some instances, the exact slapstick gag is repeated with twice the amount of pain, or with a small self-aware gesture by the characters. Frankly, it reads kind of lazy.

Also, somehow, everyone is even more unlikable in this film. The entire McCallister family is either oblivious, incompetent, conniving, or some combination of the three. But this doesn’t read charming or comedic in Home Alone 2. If anything, the repetition makes the whole fiasco seem so implausible that it is hard to have any sympathy for the McCallister clan. Of course, screenwriter John Hughes makes this implausibility part of the joke, but none of that translates for me as humorous. It is mostly just baffling, and it makes me not want the McCallisters to be on screen any more than they have to (as opposed to the first film, where at least it is easy to root for Catherine O’Hara’s mother character to make it back to her son).

Again, if you have a soft spot in your heart for Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, that is your prerogative. But I am OK being in the minority on this one.

This is all to say that I would make the case that Home Alone 3 is a fairly admirable return to form for the franchise. It scales back the go-bigger-or-go-home attitude of Home Alone 2, and it also eliminates the extended family from the equation altogether. We return to Illinois suburbs, and we are given a family whose members still retain similar roles while not being overtly unlikable people.

In this sense, Home Alone 3 is bringing the franchise back to a familiar place, but it isn’t pure replication. This is not doing the greatest hits like Home Alone 2 does in many places. The characters are new, the slapstick gags are almost entirely original (the worst gag of them all, involving a mouse in a compromising position, is lifted from the first film). And while some of these new additions are what make the film suffer, they also provide a revitalizing energy that the second film lacks.

If I may pause briefly just to say, I don’t earnestly belief that Home Alone 3 is, beat for beat, a better movie than Home Alone 2. Especially when it comes to the recasting, Home Alone 3 pales in comparison to the other two. The truly inimitable Catherine O’Hara casts a long shadow over Haviland Morris’s performance, although I think Morris is quite good here. More egregious are the villain roles, as the quartet of baddies we get in this third installment don’t hold a candle to the screen presence of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. That said, I think the lead performance from Alex D. Linz is on par with Culkin’s (to be fair to the young Culkin, I think he does pretty great work in Uncle Buck).

My argument here is that I don’t think the third film ought to be dismissed out of hand due to the absence of the previous films’ stars. John Hughes returned to script the third film, and I think it falls into a similar hit-or-miss ratio as the other films. None of the Home Alone films knock this premise out of the park, I don’t think. It is the sheer volume of wild hi-jinks that makes them work.

For all of its alterations, there is a continuity to the first three Home Alone films that, at the very least, sets Home Alone 3 apart from the subsequent two Home Alone sequels (let’s not get into those…). Not only does Hughes return as screenwriter, but director Raja Gosnell served as the editor on the first two films. The film does not have the exact same visual atmosphere without Chris Columbus behind the camera, but Gosnell’s approach is not devoid of style. The film appears slightly more flat, but it maintains a similar pace.

This pace helps the film through what is a somewhat clunky, but by no means terrible, climactic final act. There are a few inventive pratfall gags, like Alex (Linz) making the pool covering appear like a trampoline. At the very least, compared to future sequels, this climax comes off dynamic and fresh.

The plot of the film may be a slap in the face to fans of the two previous films, as it is ludicrously over-the-top. The premise has been compared to Die Hard: hired mercenaries working for North Korea are attempting to transport a stolen military computer chip, so they hide it in a toy car to fool airport security, only to lose the car. The car ends up in the hands of young Alex, and the mercs come to Illinois to retrieve it.

Now, this is an insane escalation from the “Wet Bandits,” who are petty thieves with less than a sixth grade education. Yet, for the most part, the high-level villains in Home Alone 3 are just as unintelligent as Marv and Harry. It doesn’t fully track, and the plotting at the beginning to introduce this high stakes scheme is rather excessive. But this is a cartoonish universe, after all. I don’t find it difficult to suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the bare necessities of this premise—a child outwits a band of criminal adults.

Still, “enjoy” is a strong word. Is Home Alone 3 really worth your time? Not really. Not if you enjoy the first two films because of Culkin, or because of Pesci and Stern, or because of O’Hara, or because of Columbus’s Looney Tunes direction. However, I would argue that there are worst ideas of all time than the idea of watching Home Alone 3 every three days for an indeterminate period of time. One could watch Home Alone 4 every four days, or Home Alone 5 every five days. That would be truly excruciating.

Home Alone 3 is innocuous. It is harmless, airless. It failed to capitalize on the success of its predecessors, so it disappeared against the winds of time. I would say that the film is a lark, enjoyable if watched on the right terms. Good-bad movie? Perhaps, although it is slightly too innocuous to hold that title.

All the same, I’ve had plenty of worse experiences searching for good-bad in seas mostly populated by merely bad. I might even return to Home Alone 3 one day, if only because that song keeps getting stuck in my head. This is my town / watch your step if you come around …

New Diamonds in the Rough articles post every Friday at noon, EST.

 

As always, thanks for reading!

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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)

 

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