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December 12, 2020

Saturday Evening Movie Thread 12-12-2020 [TheJamesMadison]

Coincidence at Christmas while Home Alone in New York


In terms of narrative devices, coincidence does not belong at the end of a story. Your protagonist overcoming the odds because something coincidentally falls into his lap for unrelated reasons that provides him the ability to win is inherently unsatisfying. We want our protagonists to earn their victories and losses, not for them to have no say in the matter.

However, coincidence has a more natural fit when stories begin. Two people who don't know each other meeting in a place because they both happen to be there can be the sort of thing that starts an adventure. In Romeo and Juliet the entire action of the story is driven by the coincidence of the two titular characters being at the same party at the same time. It's not the only way stories can begin, but it's common and never really stretches the audience's imagination.

However, can a movie take it too far? As an example, I provide the Home Alone films.

Staying at Home


So, the Home Alone films are about a young boy, Kevin McAllister, who, on subsequent Christmases, gets separated from his family for several days and must content against a pair of thieves. The first one sees him, well, home alone at his family's house in Chicago.

In order to get Kevin home alone without anyone realizing it long enough for the situation to remain for a while, several things have to play out. First, Kevin must want to be separated from his family, his ticket must be misplaced, the family must not notice his absence on the way to the airport or through the airport or onto the plane until the airplane they are all taking to France gets into the air. Seems easy enough. In order for that to happen, several things need to coincidentally happen.

Kevin needs to get angry with his family. For an eight year old boy, that's easy enough when he's small, one of the youngest members of the extended family, all of whom are staying in the large house his father owns. All he needs is to get pushed around a bit and for his favorite pizza to get eaten before he gets a single slice. Easy.

He needs his ticket lost, so when some Pepsi gets spilled, it hits Kevin's ticket and in the mad dash to clean up his ticket gets thrown in the trash. Um...okay. Sure. That could happen. It's a bit of a stretch on its own and it happening in the middle of the chaos of fourteen people staying in one house is the sort of coincidence that's easy enough to accept.

Next, Kevin needs to be removed from the chaos of everyone getting ready to leave the next morning, so, because of Kevin's bad behavior due to his frustration over the pizza, his mother sends him to the attic bedroom to sleep alone. So far, all of this happening together feels fine.

Then, the chaos of leaving needs to be heightened. It can't be an orderly organization where Kevin gets forgotten, so a tree falls on the powerlines that night and the house loses power along with their alarm clocks. That's the exact sort of thing that happens to start stories. It's good.

Then, the count needs to happen, and the movie takes half a step too far. As everyone is lining up by the pair of airline vans ready to take them to the airport, a neighbor boy who is Kevin's height lines up along with them, speaking endlessly to anyone who's nearby, and he gets counted as Kevin. This neighbor boy is then never seen in the movie again. It's a stretch, but as the final piece of the puzzle, it's good enough. The family is off, and Kevin is home alone.

Going to New York


The sequel was never supposed to happen. The first ended up being so insanely successful, though, that 20th Century Fox couldn't say no. Bringing back the original team to make a new movie that was completely different but entirely the same all at once, Chris Columbus chose to essentially just remake the first movie but have Kevin end up in New York alone with his family in Florida instead of home alone with his family in France. Totally different.

That's fine, and all, but how does the movie get Kevin to New York alone? The series of coincidences that kept Kevin at home the previous year stretched the concept just to the breaking point before pulling back, but in order to get Kevin alone in New York, they went well beyond the breaking point to a degree of ridiculousness that would have benefited a take on the story that was more satirical and parodic. I'm not saying they should have gone Gremlins 2: The New Batch for the Home Alone sequel, but they totally should have done that.

Anyway, the coincidences are just massive and overbearing for the first half hour of this film. Kevin gets mad at his family again. The family loses power in the middle of the night again. The family rushes to the airport again. Then, with Kevin actually in the van and at the airport, the movie has to start piling on new coincidences. None of the family have tickets sitting next to each other on the plane, so Kevin can get forgotten. Kevin needs new batteries for his voice recorder, so he takes his dad's bag which has the batteries in it (along with hundreds of dollars in cash and his credit cards), slows down in the middle of the chase to the gate, and ends up following another man, who is coincidentally dressed like his dad, to another gate. Okay, so we have all of the first movie's coincidences with the final coincidence in the first replaced with a similar coincidence in the second. This becomes hard to take not just because of the number of coincidences that pile on top of each other (I feel like the man wearing the same clothes as Kevin's dad to be less bearable than the random kid), but also because of the repetition from the first. This is where a more satirical tone would have done the movie some good instead of treating it straight.

The final series of coincidences that sets up the movie, though, are what makes it ridiculous. The Wet Bandits (rebranded as the Sticky Bandits), played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, went to jail at the end of the first movie in Chicago. They start this movie by breaking out of prison, going to New York, arriving on the same day as Kevin, and then coincidentally bumping into him multiple times in one of the world's largest cities. Coincidentally, they both end up going to the same toy store that the Sticky Bandits are planning to rob and Kevin just decides to go shopping in. The effort to get the protagonist (Kevin) and the chief antagonists (Harry and Marv) into the same place so they can butt heads ends up feeling ridiculous after the already stretched thing series of coincidences that happened just to get Kevin to New York.

Moderation is Key


I think one of the key problems with how Home Alone 2: Lost in New York sets itself up is its use of tone. It tries to capture everything about the first movie including the first's overall sweet tone. In a movie that takes the "bigger is better" approach to sequelizing, the same nice tone doesn't fit. Going back to the Gremlins sequel, Joe Dante, the director of both of the Gremlins movies, rejected any call to a sequel until the studio allowed him to do whatever he wanted, and what he wanted ended up being making a vastly different movie than the first. The first was a child friendly, dark, horror movie, but the second was a satirical cartoon. It repeats most of the same beats from the first, but in such a different way that the repetition becomes incidental rather than distracting. Home Alone 2's insistence on doing everything the same way undermines it, but when combined with the fact that it needs to pile even more coincidence onto an already near the breaking point set of coincidences, the movie ultimately breaks under its own weight.

Coincidence in an Ending


However, Home Alone 2 takes the coincidence into its final act. There is early word in the film that some relative has a house in New York, and Kevin ends up going there where he can repeat the part of the first movie that everyone remembers: the traps in a house that should kill Harry and Marv but don't because the movie can't quite admit that it's a cartoon. That coincidence exists purely for that repetition, and it makes sure that the movie could never stand on its own. There's fun to be had with the cartoonish nature of the action in the final big sequence, but getting there is simply such a chore as the movie destroys any suspension of disbelief as one improbable thing gets piled onto another onto another seemingly endlessly.

Coincidence, like anything else in storytelling, is a tool like a hammer, and not every problem is a nail. The problem of follow ups to self-contained, high concept movies with definitive endings isn't, I think, just to repeat with bigger is better. You need to offer some real change to the formula. Gremlins 2 changed the genre completely, but another example could be Aliens that kept the original genre of the film, but altered the subgenre, changing it from the haunted house horror film into an action based horror film.

In the specific example of Home Alone 2, though, the bigger is better approach was applied lazily without any real thought about how increasing the number of coincidences that set up the story without applying a different approach to the underlying story would operate. I mean, I get it. Fox was throwing the creative team money and demanding a product based on a release date. There wasn't a whole lot of time to figure things out, but this feels like basic stuff to me.

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:


Movies I Saw This Fortnight:

Samurai Rebellion (Rating 4/4) Full Review "This movie is great. It's absolutely fantastic and heart breaking." [Netflix DVD]

Ivan's Childhood (Rating 3/4) Full Review "Ivan's Childhood is a good film from a great filmmaker, his first that shows real promise for his future. Oddly enough for his shortest feature film, I just think it's the one with the biggest problem with focus. What's there is never bad, not even close, but I just wish that it all flowed together more seamlessly." [Personal Collection]

Apocalypto (Rating 4/4) Full Review "The simple nature of the story is partially key in the telling of a tale in a place so far removed from what the audience knows, and, more importantly, Gibson keeps the intensity and interest up for a whole 140 minutes." [Personal Collection]

A Beautiful Mind (Rating 2/4) Full Review "This could have been something special. Instead it's thin Hollywood entertainment that, I don't think, has particularly stood the test of time all that well." [Personal Collection]

Cabaret (Rating 4/4) Full Review "Compelling, wonderfully acted, and a great watch, Cabaret really is a great film." [Personal Collection]

Singin' in the Rain (Rating 4/4) Full Review "It's a deliriously fun accident of a movie that looks lovingly at Hollywood's own past and gives the current audience a fun time." [Personal Collection]

I Vitelloni (Rating 4/4) Full Review "Fellini made something intensely personal and incredibly universal at the same time with I Vitelloni. There's such a special feeling to it, and it marks the man's first great film." [Personal Collection]

La Strada (Rating 4/4) Full Review "This movie is great, perhaps even could be called a masterpiece. It's tragically sad and affecting, pulling the audience in to the story of these two people with incredible skill." [Personal Collection]


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