FILM / There's no place here like home

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The Independent Culture
A while ago a neighbour told me he had rigged his burglar alarm so that it would electrocute anyone trying to disconnect it. The punishment seemed slightly disproportionate to the crime, I thought, but then there is no knowing the lengths to which the property-owning democracy will go to protect its castles. In Home Alone, two dopey, likeable housebreakers (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) got their heads set alight, their faces dented with an iron and their hands burned on a red-hot doorknob. It became the third-highest earning movie of all time and, while there has been much squealing about an (off-screen) ear-slicing incident in the forthcoming Reservoir Dogs, here no one seemed much worried about the violence.

In Home Alone 2 (PG), Macaulay Culkin inflicts further GBH (watch out for the staple-gun) with even less logical reason. He has boarded the wrong plane, you see, and fetched up in New York while his family has flown to Florida. He stumbles across the bandits and discovers their plan to rob a toy shop whose owner has intended to donate the entire Christmas Eve's takings to a children's hospital. 'You can mess with a lotta things, but you can't mess with kids at Christmas,' growls Culkin, and he lures the felons to a cruelly booby-trapped building. It looks as if the writer-producer John Hughes wanted a solid, high-minded motive for the sadism, though you do wonder (and at a long two hours, there is time to muse on these matters) why the cinema's littlest vigilante couldn't phone the cops.

Many critics have called this a carbon copy of the original, and it's true that the broad plotline and a number of the gags have been shamelessly recycled. But two years have passed, and Culkin has been marked by the signs of stardom and encroaching puberty. The big joke in the first Home Alone was that he looked like a wimp - so pale, peaky, almost, small and vulnerable - with a self-absorbed, relatively unselfconscious charm. There was a sense of danger, there was fear, and his character grew as he moved towards independence. The story had a fairy-tale quality: the enactment of Culkin's fantasy of making his family disappear. And at a deeper level the violence he inflicted on the robbers seemed like a displacement of his anger and aggression towards his parents: a more socially acceptable way of expressing the taboo.

Here the kid who, off-screen, has just ditched his latest girlfriend is already street-wise, cocky, a bit of a smart alec even. You know that, even in the big bad city, nothing will faze him. It helps no end, of course, that he commands a battery of electronic gizmos (Talk Boy, polaroid camera), his dad's credit card and a fat wad of greenbacks. His ordeal in New York is cushioned by a luxury suite at the Plaza Hotel.

Not much is made, by the way, of the move from small-town America (in Home Alone) to the Big Apple. Just consider Gremlins I and II, which made the same transition: in G2 New York was hell on earth and Trump Towers, that orgiastic monument to Eighties greed, was sent up rotten. Donald Trump actually appears in HA2, but in a bland, you-blink-you-miss-him cameo. And New York itself is dullsville - except for one brief sequence, a strictly sleaze-free zone. Culkin breezes through Chinatown and Tribeca in a quick montage sequence, and keeps well clear of Times Square; he never budges from affluent mid-town Manhattan. You won't see too many black faces in this New York.

The best thing about the film is its comic staging (by Chris Columbus), the slapstick mayhem of the Plaza scenes, the loud, zinging pratfalls of the burglars' Armageddon. The most objectionable thing about it is the mawkishness, a phoney goodwill-to-all-men philanthropy that hides a mean, cynical soul (Tim Curry's deliciously oily hotel concierge is the only redeeming touch of blatant Scroogeness). The movie's stickiest gobs of sentimentality are reserved for the scene in which Culkin takes up with a lonely bag lady, played by Brenda Fricker. He tells her that a heart is like a pair of roller-skates. She tells him (now there's a useful hint) to follow the star in his own heart.

But a homeless person feels out of place in Hughes' affluent world. 'They'd prefer I wasn't part of their city,' Fricker says of her fellow-New Yorkers, and you feel that, at bottom , the film-makers would prefer she weren't part of their movie. At the end, Culkin's family - surely the least needy children in New York - settles down to an orgy of present-opening, courtesy of the grateful toyshop owner. Culkin, however, runs off to give Fricker a plastic dove - a symbol of his undying friendship. Inviting her back out of the cold to meet his folks is out of the question, of course. And as she thanks him, misty-eyed, for the trinket, we hear an angry yell: Culkin has racked up nearly dollars 1,000 in room service. The contrast is grotesque, embarrassing. But it seems the American public has bought it once again: Home Alone 2 has rocketed to a dollars 78 million box-office take after two weeks in US cinemas. I wonder how much the producers will be donating to charity.

There is little to say about Traces of Red (15), a would-be erotic thriller in the Sea of Love / Basic Instinct mould. Jim Belushi, one of America's least charismatic leading men, is the cop drawn into a murder mystery by Lorraine Bracco's wealthy, tantalising fatal lady. Set in Palm Beach, the film aspires to sophisticated glamour but looks cheap and manky (it's the sort of movie where all the blonde women have dark roots); the serpentine script is complicated to the point of implausibility. The main culprits may be unmasked: Andy Wolk (director) and Jim Piddock (writer).