Film: The Big Picture - Welcome to the dull house

Home Alone 3 Directed by Raja Gosnell (PG)
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Although the film-maker John Hughes is passionate about his characters, you could never mistake him for someone who is in love with cinema. I think he treats the medium as a means to an end. His work argues politely for the wisdom of the young, or the beauty of the Chicago suburbs - though never for the wonder of cinema. His most successful films, the Home Alone series, are like public information broadcasts promoting an embalmed idea of the family unit where someone is always shovelling snow or baking cookies, and nobody ever gets so much as a verruca. The Simpsons must feel like a foreign language to him.

This vision of suburbia is as distinct as Steven Spielberg's, though it's a good deal more bland and insular; the Home Alone films subscribe to the territorial fascism that Joe Dante satirised in The `Burbs. You fear that if ET showed up on the doorstep unannounced in a John Hughes film, someone would set the guard dogs on him.

There are moments in Home Alone 3 (which Hughes wrote and produced but did not direct) that seem to be mere millimetres away from inspired parody, just as you always feel that some judicious tweaking might transform these films into junior versions of Sleuth. You keep willing the director Raja Gosnell to take a risk with the material and nudge it that extra distance. When a father tells his son, "I'll bring the TV up from the family room", his enunciation is so theatrical that you long for him to offer a knowing wink to the camera. It could only have happened if pointing up the absurdity in the phrase "family room" weren't tantamount to sacrilege in a Home Alone film. This bullying celebration of the nuclear family may leave you rooting for the long-haired thug, played by David Thornton, who smashes family portraits and makes Herod look like a Teletubby. As his colleagues ponder the identity of the child who is tormenting them, he proposes direct action. "Let's not take any chances," he snarls. "We'll whack every kid in the neighbourhood, burn them all." Bah humbug never sounded so sweet.

I don't think the self-righteousness of Home Alone 3 would be quite so loathsome if the picture itself didn't practically squelch with sleaze. When four terrorists hide a computer chip inside a remote-control car called The Mutator, the repeated shots of the toy's packaging makes the film feel like an extended advertisement, with product placement taking precedence over entertainment. Your suspicions are confirmed when The Mutator starts notching up more close-ups than its human co-stars.

What little controversy the Home Alone series attracts is usually directed towards the violent slapstick, though these scenes amount to nothing more than actors imitating cartoons - the same concept on which the live action version of The Flintstones was predicated. A child doesn't take anything away from the experience of watching Home Alone 3, and there's none of the tingling fear or joy that you get from the best fairy-tales - it's just one flat kick after another. If anything, the violence provides a reprieve from the greetings-card sentimentality and a chance for a bored director to let rip. At one point in Home Alone 3, a man is attacked by a lawnmower which ploughs across his scalp and leaves him with a hairstyle that would do any rap singer proud. And there's another nice touch when two men who have been trapped up to the waist in a frozen swimming pool emerge wearing little tutus of blue ice.

The most unsavoury aspect of the Home Alone films has always been the dubious conceit of presenting children who talk and behave like adults. The parameters of what is acceptable in cinema's representation of children can be bewildering. It is a sign of technology's advancement and ubiquity that in Home Alone 3, the eight-year-old Alex (Alex D Linz) should be fluent in the procedures of faxing and speed-dialling. But perhaps it is slightly more unsettling to see him larking around with an electric drill and tinkering in the back of a TV set with a screwdriver. Or to hear him make a reference to "butt-inspection gloves". Do eight-year-olds know what a butt inspection is? Should we be worried if they do? And should we be concerned that one of the world's most popular screenwriters gets a buzz from putting dirty words in the mouths of children?

It's a society labouring under a distorted view of its young that takes umbrage at a film like Kids, which was made for an adult audience, while deeming the Home Alone movies morally unassailable. There's a kind of pornography of suggestion at work on Home Alone 3, and in Hughes's early film Curly Sue, where we see a child teetering on the brink of pubescence at the age of eight, fulfilling every criteria necessary to qualify for adulthood except a sexual one. The absence of libido creates a queasy tension in which the missing segment of this adult-child creature is left unspoken, a wisp of insinuation hanging about the film like a nasty smell.

And when the young star develops a sexual presence that can no longer be disguised as innuendo, then he or she is surgically removed to make way for a tender young heifer. It's the meat market of wholesome family entertainment. Alex D Linz has been wheelbarrowed in to replace Macaulay Culkin, shrivelled and leathery and put out to pasture at the grand old age of 17, no longer able to carry off those crucial child nudity scenes, his trademark howl of comic pain now fraught with palpable anguish.

On release today