When many people remember John Hughes’ films, they think teenagers, teen angst and coming-of-age stories. However, whenever I think of his filmmaking and writing I think of “Uncle Buck” because it is fundamentally a grown-up film and examines issues many adults face (even though they are framed here in the context of one teenager and two younger kids). Best yet, it is endearing without being sappy and has depth without having to sacrifice a lot of fun along the way. Since I started this blog about four months ago, I’ve been trying to review mostly little-remembered films, but I’ll go to the popular “Uncle Buck” here because I like it so much … and, in the best news of all, it has John Candy.
(1989; 100 minutes; rated PG; directed by John Hughes and starring John Candy, Macaulay Culkin and Jean Louisa Kelly)
COMING-OF-AGE FOR A MAN WHO’S A BOY
(NOTE: I expanded this review with some additional opinion and the addition and updating of some links on March 19, 2016.)
With “Uncle Buck,” writer-director John Hughes had another movie in which a boy becomes a man, but this time it was an overweight thirtysomething who had to grow out of some childish ways to find some clarity in his life. Like much of other of Hughes’ efforts, “Uncle Buck” is not just a superior film but one with perfect pitch for the two generations that clash.
Audiences easily find that “Uncle Buck,” as the title suggests, is about one person and that person is John Candy as “Buck Russell.” The rest of the cast, while talented and show flashes of excellence, are always in his shadow and, although they help make the entire film come alive, it remains for all accounts a one-man show.
In short, Candy is called in to take care of his two nieces and nephew when his brother and sister-in-law have to leave town when her father has a heart attack. Candy is the last on the list (bottom of the bucket … or any other metaphor you can think of) and they ultimately have no choice but to ask.
At that point in his life Candy grabs any excuse to avoid having to start a real job working for his girlfriend’s tire shop and begin his inevitable journey into adulthood: he’s going to have to give up his carefree ways that include an income derived pretty much from gambling. However, he’s about to run into fate that is complete and uncontrollable havoc. Much to his distress, he realizes he is completely clueless at some levels, while holding the winning hand in others.
In the end Candy has evolved; the oldest daughter has come of age with Candy’s somewhat unorthodox style; and the wimpy brother (I’ll get to much deeper criticism of him later) and sister-in-law have had a change of heart – actually it was just her, because the brother always liked his sibling but couldn’t say it because he is completely spineless and wouldn’t stand up to his wife.
Candy is completely at ease here, whether he’s singing along to the radio while making a breakfast only a bowling alley regular would enjoy or having to navigate the intricacies of having to change his personality when dealing with the issues of the differing ages of the youngsters. From dealing with a steamy neighbor to telling off a school principal to putting his own interests aside (despite the financial gain, he doesn’t take them to a horse track – it’s not difficult to believe that’s a big step for him).
Candy’s physical comedy comes through perfectly as he uses his essence (and not slapstick) to convey happiness, confusion and seriousness. Candy, who died at a youthful 43 five years after the release of “Uncle Buck” of a heart attack, was also spectacular in “Splash” (click here for my review), wonderful in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” as well as scene-stealing in “Stripes” and excellent in a small part in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Actually, after “U,” I liked him best in “Splash” with Tom Hanks (click here for my review).
Here’s a look at other members of the primary cast:
- Jean Louisa Kelly plays “Tia Russell,” the arrogant high-school age niece who wants to show everyone that she is independent, smarter than everyone, cooler than everyone and in the driver’s seat of her world. Kelly immediately runs into a wall called Candy, who uses his own youthful experiences to anticipate what she’s up to and shut it down with a parental command to keep her under his thumb. Kelly, whose first film is “Uncle Buck,” is perfectly cast as the cold-as-ice teen queen who denigrates anything said or done by adults. She delivers a career-best performance here that is smooth, accurate with the sullen snottiness of real teenagers (she was 17 when “Uncle Buck” was released). Kelly, whose best lines are when she was delivering nearly back-breaking verbal shots to Candy here, was also in “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and a string of roles on TV including on shows such as “Burn Notice” and more recently in “Hero Factory.”
- After Candy, the actor with the most talent and shows it here in a somewhat reduced time on screen is Oscar-nominated Amy Madigan (for “Twice in a Lifetime”), who plays Candy’s girlfriend “Chanice Kobolowski.” Madigan makes the most of her role and is the resented adult perched on Candy’s shoulder (to little avail at first until circumstances force him to do otherwise). Madigan is a delight and was also in “Field of Dreams” and “Pollock.”
- The niece and nephew are played by Gabby Hoffman (who later added an extra “n” to her last name for future credits) as “Maizy Russell” and pre-“Home Alone” Macauley Culkin plays “Miles Russell.” It’s neat to see real acting from both and they both are effective and fun. Of course Culkin would have his two “Home Alone” turns as well as “Richie Rich” and Hoffman would go on to “Sleepless in Seattle.” She was also in “Field of Dreams” in her first movie (Madigan played her mother) and “Uncle Buck” was her second big-screen effort.
- Laurie Metcalf, who now plays the mother of “Sheldon Cooper” on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory” (click here for my treatise on it) plays “Marcie Dahlgren-Frost” here. Metcalf is sexed-up neighbor who takes a shine to Candy and causes him trouble with Madigan. It’s a neat little role for her and she brings it off with an ease that hides the difficulty of the character. Metcalf’s also been in “Scream 2” and voiced “Mrs. Davis” in the “Toy Story” franchise.
- The most hilarious single scene features Mike Starr as “Pooter-the-Clown.” He comes to the house to entertain at a birthday party. “Pooter” has been drinking and has a foul-mouthed diatribe for Candy, who obviously would normally relate to “Pooter” but with the kids in the house, he winds up punching “Pooter” in the nose. Starr was also in “Dumb and Dumber” and “GoodFellas.”
- Now, here’s the only shadow to fall on this film. Garrett M. Brown plays “Bob Russell,” who is Candy’s brother. Hughes has this character as a spineless, hen-pecked buffoon who looks even more stupid and spineless in his 1980s-style glasses. Even his kids can’t escape his spinelessness – their names were obviously chosen by his controlling, pathetic wife. I can’t really criticize Brown since this is Hughes’ character, but I will say he does excellent work as a completely obsequious, insipid little twerp. Brown has also been in … ah forget it. I don’t care what he’s been in.
- Finally (and I’m glad I get to type “finally”) we have Elaine Bromka playing “Cindy Russell,” who is Candy’s sister-in-law. It’s a small role and she does just a so-so job as the woman first horrified when Candy has to be asked to watch the kids and then recoils when he asks questions that reveal his lack of parenting skills. She has been in … oh, I don’t care about her either (blame this disinterest on Brown).
At the end, everything’s tied up so perfectly that you don’t mind that there are no loose ends or that in any other film it would be called saccharine. Even the freeze frame of Candy smiling is perfect. Thanks, John, for this movie. Hughes died in 2009 at the age of 59 (of a heart attack; like Candy).
“Uncle Buck” was the 18th ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1989 with $66.7 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It ultimately made $79.2 million worldwide on a budget of just $15 million, according to Wiki. It came in far behind the year’s No. 1 film (“Batman” with $251.1 million). At No. 2 was “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” with $197.1 million (how the latter didn’t beat the former is a complete mystery to me – except that it’s the weakest of the franchise). Other films from that year that I have reviewed include:
- “Christmas Vacation” (iconic holiday flick) – click here for my review
- “Harlem Nights” (excellent Murphy-Pryor) – click here for my review
- “How I Got into College” (creative comedy) – click here for my review
- “Let it Ride” (excellent Richard Dreyfuss) – click here for my review
- “Major League” (baseball comedy classic) – click here for my review
- “Parenthood” (excellent family drama) – click here for my review
- “Road House” (mediocre Swayze) – click here for my review
- “Weekend at Bernie’s” (great light comedy) – click here for my review
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- Another piece of perfect casting is Jay Underwood as “Bug,” who is the oversexed boyfriend of Kelly. He draws Candy’s ire from the first scene they’re in together and ultimately comes out the loser in a final showdown with him. Underwood has also been in “Fatal Affair” and a string of TV roles.
- You didn’t realize … Anna Chlumsky (as “School Child”) and Patricia Arquette (“Additional Voices”) are in the cast.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “Almost every set was built in a local high school gymnasium, including the two-story Russell house.”
- I really enjoy and respect Danny DeVito’s work, but I’m truly thankful he didn’t get the role of “Buck Russell.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The scene where Miles interrogates Chanice through the mail slot gave director John Hughes the idea for Home Alone.”
© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016.
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