The Great Outdoors (1988)
Written by John Hughes
Directed by Howard Deutch
John Hughes was such a hot property in the 1980s and has his script being directed by many other directors. Before his untimely death at age 59, he only directed eight films. Compare that to the over thirty scripts he wrote between 1983 and 2008. When you write that many movies, you must accept that the quality would vary and near the end of his life. Even during Hughes’s peak, there were some middling but entertaining pictures like The Great Outdoors. This is a deep childhood favorite for me, and I admit as an adult, not all the jokes that hit hard in my youth still have that effect it is still a wonderfully fun family comedy with that edge 1980s movies seemed to have.
Chet Ripley (John Candy) has brought his wife and two sons to a lake resort in Pecchogin, Wisconsin, to spend the summer. Their peaceful vacation is interrupted by his wife’s sister (Annette Bening) and her investment banker husband Roman (Dan Akroyd). Roman is a showboater and continuously obsessed with impressing the people around him by throwing around money, or in this case, Chet’s money. Through a series of misadventures, Chet grows more and more irritated with Roman’s presence, and it leads to a mountain of family secrets between the two to come out.
The Great Outdoors was made in the same vein as National Lampoon’s Vacation and Summer Rental, a vacation comedy that puts people in hilarious situations and encountering eccentric locals. This genre of picture has been made many times since, but I don’t think family trip movies outside of the 1980s have lived up to these originals. Once again, Hughes has such a perfect character for John Candy, a man who was just born to play a warm father or uncle type. You feel like being his kid would be a fantastic experience, that he would genuinely love you unconditionally.
The character of Chet is most annoyed by disingenuous people. This sets him apart from a similar role, Clark Griswold, in the Vacation series. Clark always wants to force enjoyment on his kids and wife and create “treasured family memories” that never turn out how he so desperately wants them. On the flipside, Chet has things he wants to do with his family, but he never jams it down their throats. Chet honestly lets Roman have his fun instead with occasional moments like going out fishing in a pontoon boat near the end of the picture. When Chet’s eldest son comes to him after getting into a conflict with a young local he likes, Chet suggests they go out on the boat and just enjoy the night. From a script point of view, you need Chet to be like this to counterbalance the bravado of Roman.
The weakness of the story is that it is composed of vignettes with no real strong overarching spine to the plot. Each sequence focuses mainly on the personality contrast of Chet and Roman. There are some wonderfully funny bits like the Old ‘96er steak-eating scene, the water skiing sequence. I really love the back and forth during the grilling scene that comes early in the film. Chet mentions they will throw some hot dogs on the grill, which is met by Roman’s disgust that they would eat hot dogs, which he claims are made of “lips and assholes.” Roman uses Chet’s money to buy lobster tails instead, and Candy does such a fantastic job of being mad about Roman but not exploding on him. This is the way, so many real family conflicts go, the irritated party simmering and not really being aggressive in response.
The Great Outdoors still holds up but isn’t as good as Candy’s previous picture and the work he would do later with John Hughes. You will laugh consistently from this movie, and it has most to do with the performances of the actors. The female leads, Bening and Stephanie Faracy, hold their own against the male actors in their respective roles. I think Faracy and Candy have fantastic chemistry and wish the two had done more together. Even the child actors are pretty good. If you are in the mood for a satisfying seasonal flick, The Great Outdoors is an enjoyable choice.