Thursday, November 25, 2021

Returns and Exchanges:

Nothing like the holidays for joyless repackaging of better times past. Why see something new when you can queue up pale echoes of the glories of Christmases long, long ago? Guess that’s what streaming programmers were thinking when they flipped the green light on what passes for new non-Hallmark Christmas movies this year. There’s an 80s-centric reworking of A Christmas Story called 8-Bit Christmas over on HBO Max and a deeply unpleasant new Home Alone over on Disney+. The former is a little better, just because it’s not actively awful. It’s far too schmaltzy and passively derivative for that. Neil Patrick Harris narrates the story of a boy who desperately wants a particular gift for Christmas. Along the way he deals with his eccentric family, neighborhood bullies, and schemes to bring the object of his affection to the top of the shopping list. It’s 1988. Instead of a Red Ryder BB gun, it’s a Nintendo. (The parents are still concerned about health effects, but at least he won’t shoot his eye out.) Instead of heart-warming carols on the soundtrack, we get a nonstop barrage of 80s pop. Instead of wry observation, we get clumsy sitcom wisecracks. Instead of the weird kid getting his tongue frozen to a pole, he repeatedly projectile vomits. (Seeing that, I nearly did, too.) It all feels a little past its sell-by date; Story isn’t as omnipresent as it once was, and these days 80s nostalgia is almost entirely supplanted by the 90s. And since a surface-level feature-length riff on those two elements are all on offer in this mild mediocrity, the thing’s a pretty empty experience. (Besides, if you want to see a Christmas comedy about scrambling for a hot ticket toy, there’s always the superior Jingle All the Way.) Even reliably funny Steve Zahn and June Diane Raphael as the parents—the source of most of the movie’s smiles and eventual sentimentality—can’t elevate such a charmless, formulaic thing.

But at least that one feels like a real movie. Home Sweet Home Alone is a cringingly ugly nothing all the way down. It’s inspired (and I use “inspiration” loosely) by the 1990 original, in which Macaulay Culkin was left home alone over the holidays and fought off some nasty burglars who tried to rob him. What plays like juvenile silliness with exaggerated violent slapstick and cloying sentiment now seems, also, like a paragon of a kind of broad Hollywood craft. Chris Columbus shot his version on a cozily dressed suburban set with filmic textures, and the warm blanket of John Williams’ score is holiday spirit aurally embodied. This new version, scripted by vets of the latest, most disappointing, SNL seasons, is shot with all the charm of an industrial warehouse. The titular home is lit and staged like a half-empty IKEA showroom. Who’d want to be there, alone or not? The family is icy, miserable, and obscenely wealthy. The kid (Jojo Rabbit's charming sidekick Archie Yates done a disservice) destined to be left alone is an insufferable brat. (They should all be lucky to be rid of each other.) Worst, though, is that the thieving villains of the picture (Ellie Kemper and Rob Delaney), the ones trying to break into the home, are set up for comeuppance, but are in the right. They’re a married couple on the brink of losing their home who cross paths with the brat at an open house after which they notice a priceless doll has been stolen. Suspecting the kid, they need to break in and steal it back. He fights back with the mean-spirited contraptions you'd expect from this series. I wish it knew he was the real villain. (Better Watch Out, a holiday horror film from a few years ago, did a better spin on the evil Christmas kid, though its R-rating means it won't get family replay value.) Alas, whatever narrative convolutions are necessary to bring this to a resolution that absolves all parties of wrongdoing and contrives a real-meaning-of-the-season snow-globe final shot feels all the cheaper. Every scene from beginning to end is a total blank, dead air despite stacking the cast with one-scene comedy ringers. You almost have to want to make a bad movie to end up with something this awful. That deciding to make this was one of Disney’s first acts upon purchasing it with the 20th Century Fox sale had me wondering how deep the business objectives went. This remake is so bad, so ugly, so witless, so empty, that I started wondering if they were deliberately trying to make the original look even better by comparison.

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