The Great Outdoors

March 14, 2013

Great OutdoorsTwo brothers-in-law sit on the deck of a vacation hideaway, gazing out over the serene lake in front of them. One is content to enjoy the trees on the other side, but the other has a different idea: He takes one look at all of that unused space and has a grand vision for a toxic dump for medical refuse.

These two guys aren’t going to get along at all, which is the operating idea behind The Great Outdoors, yet another comedy from the pen of John Hughes. Here Hughes reworks some of the chemistry from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which straight-laced Steve Martin was terrorized by geeky John Candy.

In The Great Outdoors, Candy is back, but this time as the straight man. He plays an ordinary businessman who takes his wife (Stephanie Faracy) and two sons up to the lake cabin for a week of peace. There’s a surprise waiting for him: the crazed, crass brother-in-law (Dan Aykroyd), who’s brought his wife (Annette Bening) and spooky twin daughters up unannounced for the week.

Hughes’ script allows these two to lock horns over most of the familiar outdoorsy situations that are liable to confront the urban adventurer: water-skiing technique, fishing, a battle with a bat (“radar-guided vermin” in Aykroyd’s vernacular), and the ultimate test of camping manhood, the proper way to build a fire.

Howard Deutch directs these almost elderly jokes. He also directed Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, two other Hughes scripts. Deutch’s main task is to set the two comic actors up and allow them some room, which is does passably. As for the subplot with Candy’s son (Chris Young) romancing a comely local (Lucy Deakins), it is a completely separate sidebar.

Deutch and Hughes have a curious tendency to kill a comic sequence before it’s over. The set-up is there, the joke is delivered, and poof. On to the next gag. You almost get the feeling that these jokes are so well-worn, Deutch and Hughes are content to let the audience complete the missing material.

The Great Outdoors doesn’t approach the inspired high points of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and the final 30 minutes or so of resolution are particularly half-hearted. Candy is perfectly okay as the laid-back family man, and Aykroyd does have a few amusingly grotesque moments, though his performance is something of a rehash of his role in Neighbors, in which he played that nightmarish figure, the friendly next-door neighbor.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

Huh–the review seems to be missing an ending. I forgot Bening was in this thing—it was her first big-screen job. The movie’s really dead in the water, a real dud after the first two Hughes-Deutch successes.

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She’s Having a Baby

October 17, 2012

No, She’s Having a Baby isn’t a cash-in on the sudden popularity of such boffo baby movies as Three Men and a Baby and Baby Boom. Actually, this movie was made about a year ago and originally advertised for release last summer

However, writer-director John Hughes got caught up in the making of his subsequent film, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which needed to be completed in time for a Thanksgiving release date. So She’s Having a Baby was put off until now, though the postponement prompted rumors of a bomb in the making.

The rumors were unwarranted; She’s Having a Baby is much in the Hughesian vein, which means it’s an amusing, observant, slickly enjoyable movie. This one is, by all accounts, a largely autobiographical film, a reflection of Hughes’ own life as a young married ad man who yearns to be a real writer.

Hughes’ alter ego, Jefferson Briggs (Kevin Bacon), narrates his own story, beginning with his marriage to his high school sweetheart, Kristy (Elizabeth McGovern). His best friend (Alec Baldwin) resents the marriage with rather mysterious forcefulness.

Over the next few years, Briggs puts aside the Great American Novel and takes a job at a Chicago advertising agency in order to support his household (located in a suburbia that seems to be throwing an eternal backyard barbecue). Hughes sketches this life with some authority, having lived much the same existence in the years before he entered filmmaking.

Briggs is tantalized by his friend’s tales of the glamorous life in New York City; and he’s intrigued by a gorgeous, available woman (Isabel Lorca) who keeps bumping into him. Hughes manages to get some admirable freshness into this familiar material, even punctuating the movie with surreal touches—for example when the galloping conformity of suburbia breaks out into a synchronized dance on the front lawns, in which wives pirouette with lemonade and hubbies step-kick with their power mowers.

The baby-making takes up the last third of the movie, up to and including the teary conclusion. The couple’s determined attempts to produce culminate in a session in which the exhausted Briggs goes to duty to the strains of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” (one of Hughes’ typically blunt musical cues).

Though this film is enjoyable in many ways, there is the nagging sense that Hughes too often falls prey to the facility of the advertising images, much like his protagonist. There are too many emotional shortcuts, as though Hughes is unwilling to scratch the surface he has fashioned.

It’s an attractive surface, nevertheless, and incidentally provides Bacon and McGovern with their best film work in a few years.

First published in the Herald, February 1988

I seem to have enjoyed it. Bacon, McGovern, Hughes…it all seems like a different world now, doesn’t it?


National Lampoon’s Vacation

August 8, 2012

This Vacation is a pretty tame vehicle for Chevy Chase, with only a few utterly gross and tasteless gags to liven up the general dreariness. One of the best—and most extended—of them has Chevy’s family (en route from Chicago to wonderful WalleyWorld in Los Angeles) dropping in on some severely inbred cousins somewhere in the Midwest. Randy Quaid invests his best grungy slobbiness into the father (Brother? Uncle? Yucch!) of the clan, amid many one-liners about kissin’ cousins (the young actors who play his mutant offspring are truly frightening-looking).

Chase retains his sense of comedic timing, and Beverly D’Angelo, as his wife, has a charming presence. She is, I’m afraid, the victim of two of the most absurdly gratuitous excuses to get the leading lady buck-naked in recent screen memory: the first is a pathetic Psycho shower-scene thing that goes nowhere; the second is her skinny-dipping response to hubby’s late-night rumba with a gorgeous young vixen in the swimming pool of the local No-Tell Motel (a response that makes absolutely no sense based on what has come before). Poor Beverly. Things really must be bad for actresses in Hollywood.

The gorgeous young vixen is played by Christie Brinkley, a model and, for years, Bunsen Burner to American Malehood as the swimsuit girl in Sports Illustrated‘s annual libido issue. Hate to say it, fellas, but the truth must be told. She’s terrible.

First published in The Informer, August 1983

The movie hit people of a certain age just right, and there was that scene of Chase falling asleep at the wheel and just driving along blissfully, which had a certain surrealist commitment. At least I think that was in this one.


National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

December 23, 2011

In time, it seems, everyone goes soft. Even Chevy Chase. Who would have thought that the smirking smartass of the original “Saturday Night Live” crew would eventually go all gooey and squishy on us?

But it has happened. In Chase’s new film, the story of which he developed with screenwriter John Hughes, there has been a decided shift toward the sentimental. Whereas the original National Lampoon’s Vacation was cruelly funny (for instance, the family dog was tied temporarily to the rear bumper of the car, then remembered about 50 miles later), the new one, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, is soft at its center.

Oh, another house pet gets killed (the cat chews a bit too lustily at the lights around the tree), but this is minor gratification. While it catalogs the terrors of a Christmas vacation, spent at home with a large family, the film also aims in the direction of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s not a good blend.

Some of the early going, in which it is established again that Clark Griswold (Chase) is the most hapless buffoon in America, is mildly amusing. When Clark attempts to string up 20,000 Christmas lights around the house, Chase gets to do some of his patented physical comedy.

Even then, there’s no sense of how to build a silent comic sequence. Doesn’t anybody know how to do this anymore? (The film is preceded by a short that salutes the 50th anniversary of Bugs Bunny—three minutes containing more well-executed gags than in the entire running time of Christmas Vacation.)

After that, the movie draws humor from the onslaught of relatives. Included is the moronic and severely inbred cousin from the original Vacation, again played by Randy Quaid. Quaid stays true to the utter grossness of his character, and thus is a welcome presence. The veteran character actors who play members of Griswold’s family have little to do, except endure jokes about their bodily functions and bad toupees; once again, that lovely actress Beverly D’Angelo is wasted as Clark’s wife.

In the end, Clark discovers the true meaning of Christmas. Everything ends, amazingly, with hugs and kisses and warm yuletide feelings. (Except for the cat, who simply ends up warm.) Some people could pull this off, but Chevy Chase was funnier as a smartass.

First published in the Herald, December 1, 1989

And it’s a kind of Christmas classic for some, which I guess proves the effect of countless cable-TV iterations upon the human mind. Despite all this, happy holidays.


Some Kind of Wonderful

May 13, 2011
Stoltz and Masterson, pretending

There’s no way Some Kind of Wonderful should work. Isn’t this tale of a misfit student infatuated with the prettiest girl in school while his true love waits on the sidelines just a gender-reversal of last year’s Pretty in Pink? And hasn’t the high-school well run dry yet for the prolific producer John Hughes , the teen-film potentate (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)?

Hughes would seem to be repeating himself here, by pulling the sex-switch on this Pretty in Pink script and hiring the same director, Howard Deutch.

By rights, all of that should make Some Kind of Wonderful a craven commercial effort, designed to repeat the success of Pretty in Pink. Well, commercial it may very well be. Enjoyable it definitely is.

The misfit in this case is a sensitive lad, a hopeful artist (Eric Stoltz, out from under his Mask makeup), basically an okay guy but shy enough for his sister to refer to him as “the human Tater-Tot.”

His confidante is a tomboy drummer (Mary Stuart Masterson), with whom he maintains a close but unromantic friendship. His dream is the school’s most popular girl (Lea Thompson, recovering prettily from Howard the Duck), but she, of course, is hooked with the school’s swaggering jock (Craig Sheffer, perfectly embodying every bully who ever drove you nuts).

The film isn’t five minutes old before we know that Stoltz will have to work through his crush on Thompson in order to discover his true affection for Masterson. And Hughes is starting to run out of ideas for this milieu; the villains, for instance, are stock, without any memorable traits.

Okay, fine. But Hughes’ dialogue and the agility of the actors is enough to distract from the blueprint nature of the thing.

And there are a couple of scenes that take off. Stoltz, trapped in detention, sketches in his notebook, which inspires the punked-out lunk across the aisle to respond with some art of his own. Holding up a drawing of a skull with eyes, the hulk suggests, with disarmingly cheery innocence, “That’s what my girlfriend would look like without skin.”

And there’s a nice version of the beginning-to-see-the-light scene, when Masterson helps Stoltz prep for a possible kiss with Thompson, by acting the role of the latter. The “pretend” kiss between Masterson and Stoltz, held just a moment longer than necessary, has her beating a hurried retreat. “Lesson’s over. You’re cool,” she sputters, barely keeping her awakened hormones in check.

All the actors are good to watch, but Mary Stuart Masterson steals the show. (She’s got the spiciest dialogue, too.) She was previously good as Sean Penn’s girlfriend in the little-seen At Close Range.

Masterson seems to have exceptional range herself. She has a way of swallowing the big emotional moments, only just letting them peek through, that feels utterly honest. When she sits on the hood of a car, shivering with anger and frustration and hurt over Stoltz’ success with Thompson, I get the distinct sense that a mature actress is being born.

I don’t know whether she’ll turn into a conventional leading lady—she looks too short and small-featured for that, somehow—but it’s a career worth following, and Some Kind of Wonderful is a painless place to start.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

Masterson never did turn into a conventional leading lady, but she did a lot of fine work. The rest of the review sounds about right to me—this movie should have suffered from the law of diminishing returns, yet did some pleasant things anyway. For John Hughes, the teen genre was about played out, and other projects (not really better projects) beckoned.


Pretty in Pink

May 12, 2011

rich, poor, duck

John Hughes has been dubbed “The Word Processor” for the facility with which he turns out screenplays; even since he’s become a director in his own right, he’s kept up a flow of pages. Four films have come from his computer terminal in the space of two years, with another on the way this summer.

They’ve ranged in quality: Sixteen Candles was a charming directorial debut, and The Breakfast Club was a surprisingly ambitious meditation on teenage anxiety. Then came the out-of-control Weird Science, which might better have been cut by an hour and flipped into a TV slot of “Amazing Stories.”

Now we have Pretty in Pink, which Hughes wrote but has allowed someone else to direct. (He was probably facing some sort of union violation with all that productivity.)

It covers familiar teen territory, and has much the same feel as Sixteen Candles (including that film’s star, Molly Ringwald). The situation is basic: A girl from the po’ side of town (Ringwald) falls for a richie (Andrew McCarthy), but they both suffer from peer disapproval of such a mixed matchup.

Undergoing special excruciation is the girl’s pal Duckie (Jon Cryer), a goof who worships her and detests his straight-laced competition. Duckie is a version of the quick-witted, hustling geek played by Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles, and he provides most of the laughs, especially in the early part of the movie.

Unfortunately, he’s offscreen for far too long in the latter part of the film, as Ringwald passes through a crisis when McCarthy revokes his cherished invitation to the prom. She’s also got to counsel her dad (Harry Dean Stanton), who’s in the dumps because his wife ran out on the family a few years earlier.

Ringwald works at a hip record store managed by a confidante (Annie Potts) who specializes in kitschy fashion chic and lives mainly in the ’60s. At one point Potts cautions Ringwald to give up on a tardy date: “It’s after seven. Don’t waste good lip gloss.” It’s a plum role for Potts, who has enlivened films for a few years now (Crimes of Passion) without quite finding her niche.

In fact, the film is nicely played throughout. James Spader, for instance, invests the small role of the bigoted rich kid with enough hissability to forever typecast himself.

But director Howard Deutch, although he’s aided by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto’s subtle visuals, can’t hoist the material above TV-movie interest. Hughes’ dialogue sparkles now and again, but there’s nothing tying all the pieces together.

This becomes most glaringly evident at the film’s ending, when the three principals face off at the prom. Ringwald must choose between her geeky pal or the dreamy richie, but you don’t know exactly why she chooses as she does. What’s worse, the film waffles on the matter, contriving a convenient partner for the third wheel. (Rumors that the ending was reshot to appease disappointed preview audiences suggest this waffling was not originally intended.)

Not to worry. Hughes can redeem himself with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a self-directed comedy scheduled for this summer. But then, by that time, he’ll probably have three new movies in the can.

First published in the Herald, February 28, 1986

What happened was, this movie made at least as big an impression on people as Sixteen Candles, if not bigger. So go figure. Apparently changing the ending paid off nicely; when Hughes and Deutch went to the well again with Some Kind of Wonderful, they rectified things a little as far as the misfit character having a taste of triumph. Spader managed to elude the typecasting, although it was a close call for a while.


Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

May 11, 2011

Bueller in excelsis.

“How could I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?”

These words are spoken near the beginning of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off by the title character, and there is simply no arguing with him. High school promises another day of learning about European socialism; but the blue Chicago skies portend adventure and fun. Faced with such a choice, you gotta be realistic.

So Ferris (Matthew Broderick) adopts a sickly mien for the benefit of his parents, who swallow his routine whole and leave for work. For the next 10 hours, Ferris, his buddy Cameron (Alan Ruck), and his girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), play hooky in the Windy City, in a day that turns out to be pivotal for all of them.

This fandango is the brainchild of writer-director John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club), who seems to be an inexhaustible source of sharp ideas. The simplicity of the day trip here allows Hughes to dabble in surrealism at times, and he lavishes attention not just on his main threesome but on the supporting characters as well.

As Ferris and his pals take off in the pristine red Ferrari that belongs to Cameron’s fussy father, we also watch the parallel stories of Ferris’s sister (Jennifer Grey), who resents her brother’s charmed life (he gets away with everything) and tries to have his subterfuge exposed; and the school’s dean (Jeffrey Jones, the daffy emperor from Amadeus), who loathes Ferris’s occasional vacations and personally sets out the track the kid down.

The day itself consists of mostly tame diversions: a visit to the museum, a ballgame at Wrigley Field, a look down from the tallest building in the world, and some improvising at a parade. The events themselves don’t count so much as the liberating sensation of freedom. And that feeling works more powerfully on Cameron, a hypochondriac who lacks Ferris’s understanding of the necessity of fun.

As delightful as much of this is, Hughes still hasn’t put together a film that really clicks all the way through. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ranges pretty broadly off course a few times—the dean’s mishap with a frisky guard dog at Ferris’s house is probably overextended—and Hughes slips into platitudinizing in a rush to get everything in at the end.

Having duly noted these reservations, they can now be put aside. This film is more sheerly enjoyable and invigorating than any other movie out right now. Time and again, Hughes’ film turns into a celebration of living; shorts scenes burst with ingenuity, none more so than in the big parade scene, when Ferris grabs center stage on a passing parade float to lip-synch to Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen,” an inspired bit of nuttiness.

This is immediately followed by a lip-synch to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” which Hughes transforms into a love song to Chicago. It may be a tad obvious, but it’s so giddy and unabashed, there’s no avoiding being charmed by it.

The movie contains no violence or nudity or other nasty bits, but it got slapped with a PG-13 rating rather than a PG. Well, sure, a film that encourages sweet liberty, especially among high-school students, has got to be handled very carefully. Notice they waited until after school was out to release it—in the hopes that young minds may forget before autumn, perhaps?

First published in the Herald, June 14, 1986

I’ll stand by it. Like the previous Hughes films, FBDO was a marvelous idea for a movie, even if the execution was variable. “Twist and Shout” was probably overkill—if he hadn’t had such hits with Sixteen Candles and Breakfast Club, Hughes probably would have stopped with “Danke Schoen,” but you can see he was feeling his oats a little bit there.