Uncle Buck (1989)
Written & Directed by John Hughes
Uncle Buck will forever be associated with John Candy. When you see the actor, you almost always think of this picture. In turn, it signals the end of an era for filmmaker John Hughes. This was the first film he did as part of a multi-picture deal with Universal. Hughes had already signed with Universal in the early 1980s after the success scripts for Mr. Mom and National Lampoon’s Vacation. After The Breakfast Club, Hughes soured on the deal, he was known for being very contentious with studios. Uncle Buck was his return to Universal after a four-year sojourn, and about a year later, he would be trying to get out of the contract already. Uncle Buck is a movie that exists as both a pleasant piece of nostalgia for millennials but is also a moment when a great mainstream director’s career began to wither.
Buck Russell (John Candy) is a single forty-year-old living in Chicago. He drinks, smokes cigars, can’t hold down a job, and makes a lot of money betting on horses. Buck is not the guy you would traditionally pick to watch your kids; however, when his brother Bob and sister-in-law Cindy must rush to Indianapolis because of her father’s heart attack, there are left with no other choices. Buck finds himself clashing with the angry and defiant teenager Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly) but quickly winning over the younger Miles and Maisie (Macauly Culkin & Gaby Hoffman). Through a series of incidents, Buck learns to be more responsible but not lose the essence of who he is. Tia finds that she has a lot in common with Buck, making mistakes and being too arrogant to admit she did. By the end of the film, they have both become better communicators and therefore finding common respect.
On the surface, this is not a very remarkable story, a basic sitcom level plot. However, through the performance by John Candy and the directing choices of John Hughes, the whole affair is elevated into something very special. Once again, as in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Class is discussed in the subtext. Cindy is immediately repelled at the idea of Buck watching her children and cites his lifestyle, all the evidence being things that are perceived as “dirty working-class” behaviors. As Buck pages through a photo album, he finds himself folded over and hidden in a picture with the bride & groom. There’s never a formal coming to terms with Cindy in the film’s third act reserved for her relationship with her eldest daughter, Tia. Instead, the audience is left to wonder what things are like between Buck and Cindy, possibly an unspoken understanding.
It’s funny that John Candy wasn’t immediately cast in this role, but so many big-name actors of the day were up for the part. Danny DeVito, Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, John Travolta, Michael Keaton, George Wendt, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Goodman, Ed O’Neill, and Joe Pesci were all considered at some point. When you see Candy in the role, it is hard to imagine anyone else able to capture the slovenly nature and organic charm of Buck Russell. My mom’s side of the family is from Illinois, and so I grew up knowing Buck-like third cousins and other extended relatives. I never really had the same experience of someone like Buck watching me for weeks, but these people had that same larger than life persona.
There’s a beautiful dynamic between Buck and the kids, with the younger actors actually being quite good. Gaby Hoffman is particularly funny and charming with such effortlessness. She plays off Candy with a natural comedy, and I wish they had more scenes together or worked in other films after this. Culkin is on the verge of playing Kevin in the following year’s Home Alone, so you already know what you are getting. Jean Louisa Kelly never had what you could call superstardom after this movie but a steady series of roles. I think she does a fantastic job of playing a confused & angry fifteen-year-old girl who wants to rebel but still has the same natural fears any adolescent would about sex and drifting away from their parents. She’s wonderfully paired with Candy, who manages to be fatherly while still immature as Buck.
Uncle Buck is the end of John Hughes’s successful run of films. It was a critical failure, with most critics finding it lacked some of the deep sensitivity seen in Hughes’s earlier work. Candy would continue working up until his untimely death in 1994, having a heart attack on the set of Wagons East! He’d have two more lead roles among over half a dozen parts, Only the Lonely and Delirious, both of which were box office failures and critically panned. Candy’s star shone brightly for such a short time on reflection, from SCTV to his passing, less than twenty years. For those who grew up with his films, I suspect we’ll cherish them and the man we came to think of us our own uncle. I just wonder how they will be remembered decades from now, if at all.