Uncle Buck

When comic John Candy and director John Hughes got together for Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the result was one of the funniest films of the last couple of years. Hughes seemed to understand Candy’s comedic strengths, on ample display in other films and on SCTV, and the giant actor was in his element. (Having Steve Martin as a straight man probably helped.)

Hughes subsequently wrote another film for Candy, The Great Outdoors, but he didn’t direct it and the movie was flat. Uncle Buck is Hughes’ tailor-made gift to Candy, yet this film still doesn’t do justice to the big man’s talents. It’s a collection of bathroom jokes and stilted sentiment.

Candy plays a 40-year-old bachelor who never managed to grow up or settle down. His girlfriend (Amy Madigan) wants to get married, but Buck is skittish. Then his brother asks him to look after the brother’s three children during a family crisis, and Buck is suddenly house-sitting the younger generation.

This premise would seem to hold comic opportunities, but aside from the occasional one-liner (Buck assures his sister-in-law that the family dog is getting enough water; he’s been leaving the toilet seats up), the humor is lame. Buck’s crudeness is supposed to upset the children, but Hughes is too interested in the sentimental side of the story to really let Buck get outrageous. So the character remains big and bland.

Buck’s main problem is his dreadful 15-year-old niece (Jean Kelly), who hates the fact that he has a monogrammed bowling ball and makes his living at the racetrack. Hughes lets her be just mean enough to inspire the audience’s hissing, then does an about-face toward the end and draws her back into the fold. It’s by the numbers.

And so, as with most reviews of John Candy films, this one will end by asking the question: Who will make a good movie with this man?

First published in The Herald, August 19, 1989

I call the movie a gift for Candy, but according to IMDb, the role was offered (or at least considered for) a bunch of different people. I guess the toilet joke was … one of the good ones? The kids in the film were Macaulay Culkin, one year shy of Home Alone, and Gaby Hoffman. Laurie Metcalf is in the cast, too. As you can see, I was bummed by this movie, because Hughes had made some funny things and Candy, as anybody who loved SCTV knew, was a glorious talent.

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