***½/**** | Image B Sound B-
starring John Candy, Amy Madigan, Jean Louisa Kelly, Macaulay Culkin
written and directed by John Hughes
by Bill Chambers It's not John Hughes's best film, but Uncle Buck could be his funniest, as well as his saddest. Saddest for many reasons, some of which are beyond the movie's control. John Hughes is gone, John Candy's gone, Macaulay Culkin's innocence is gone; because of its place on the precipice of Hughes's '90s decline, revisiting Uncle Buck has long been a bittersweet prospect, but now that it's definitively the last good John Hughes film, it's taken on the funereal feeling of old home movies starring dead relatives. Still, the sadness isn't entirely from without. There is in this movie a raging pathos that begins with the pariahdom of the title character and continues through a motif that finds some lost soul standing in long-shot beneath an archway (forming a makeshift picture frame), gazing uncomprehendingly at someone else, the very portrait of quiet suffering. Buck's on the receiving end of one of these pitiful stares at least once, when the movie's putative love interest, Chanice (Amy Madigan), walks in on him dancing with a neighbour lady (Laurie Metcalf). The song on the soundtrack is "Laugh Laugh," The Beau Brummels' spiteful "I told you so" to a woman who chose the wrong man, and as Chanice's heartbreak wafts through the air, lead singer Sal Valentino, sounding suddenly compassionate, croons, "Lonely... Oh, so lonely..."1
Uncle Buck seems loosely inspired by "Leave It to Beaver" (a TV series filmmakers of Hughes's generation osmosed much like children of the '80s osmosed Hughes's own oeuvre), specifically veteran character actor Edgar Buchanan's two-episode stint as Ward Cleaver's Uncle Billy. In his first appearance, Uncle Billy's impending visit to the Cleaver household puts Ward and June ill at ease, and we soon discover it's because Billy's tall tales have a habit of setting Cleaver boys up for a fall. Billy's return two seasons later causes less concern--what with Wally and the Beav having matured a lot since then and Billy having apparently taken them fishing in the interim--and he's actually entrusted with the lads' welfare during a rare weekend excursion for Ward and June. When Beaver's caught sneaking a friend into a matinee of Spartacus, he wrongly assumes he'll get off lightly with the lenient, jovial Billy, who's appalled that his "favourite nephew" would pull such a stunt under his watch. But Billy doesn't rat him out to his parents, figuring his guilt trip caused the Beav enough grief.
In consolidating this material, Hughes, as was his prerogative, introduces undercurrents of class tension and adolescent angst. Billy becomes Buck (Candy) and the Cleavers become the Russells; Buck is the last person his brother Bob (Garrett M. Brown) asks to look after his three children when his father-in-law has a heart attack, not necessarily because Buck's cultivated a mischievous reputation, but because Bob's wife Cindy (Elaine Bromka, incredible in a slender role) doesn't like or trust Buck, owing to her own upper-middle-class elitism. Like Billy, Buck is a big teddy bear who asks only that his proxy authority be respected, but 15-year-old Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly) is a long-time latchkey kid, and most of the movie hinges on their battle of wills. Buck eventually does corral her, and she asks him if he'll report her disobedience to the parental units. "No," he answers, then rather generously volunteers, "I've been riding your butt all week about how you live your life--I realized maybe somebody should have been riding mine." This moment of an adult reaching out to a teenager to bridge the generation gap is, for Hughes, a historic peace accord that definitively closes a chapter on his career. Uncle Buck isn't the last movie Hughes wrote and directed nor was it, to my knowledge, intended as such, but it's a de facto swan song that would've made any further returns to the teen well, at least, feel like a regression.2
What makes it difficult to embrace Uncle Buck unabashedly is that it's very much a transitional film as well, and for all its demonstrated mastery of technique (Hughes's whiplash flights of surrealism--Buck's Clapper, for instance, switches on the city of Chicago--are executed with awe-inspiring confidence and finesse, and here I feel obliged to mention that Lou Lombardo, editor of The Wild Bunch, cut Uncle Buck), it also forecasts the worst tendencies of Hughes's subsequent work. Slapstick had long been a part of Hughes's lexicon (heck, The Breakfast Club has a certain amount of it, what with Judd Nelson hiding under Molly Ringwald's skirt and falling through a ceiling unscathed), though in Uncle Buck it begins to go in a "Three Stooges" direction that would peak with the following year's Hughes-scripted/Chris Columbus-directed Home Alone. Which would be fine if Hughes were working inside the moral vacuum in which The Three Stooges' shorts take place3, but he's not, and Buck driving golf balls at a teenage boy's head is just a grim bit of business, the cartoonishness of the scene's sadism doing little to mitigate the fact of it. Uncle Buck is also, like a lot of latter-day Hughes, sketchy and uneven. Hughes was notorious for going on writing benders, dashing off shootable screenplays in a matter of days, but as he burned through his muses (first Molly Ringwald/Anthony Michael Hall, then John Candy, then Macaulay Culkin, then, seemingly, the almighty dollar), this came to increasingly resemble a feat of haste. While Uncle Buck's episodic structure is classic Hughes, something like fatigue is starting to show in the scattershot success of the individual vignettes.
The nadir of the film is arguably Buck's visit to the school where his other niece, Maizy (Gaby Hoffman), is a student--a sequence that comes out of left field, inviting all sorts of painfully literalminded questions that could've been pre-empted with a line or two of exposition. According to her uncle, Maizy is six years old (or is he simply guessing at her age the way he earlier guessed at her name?), and Buck's there to receive a progress report on her education from "Asst. Principal Anita Horgarth" (Suzanne Shepherd), a disciplinarian with a giant mole on her face. According to Horgarth, "[Maizy] is a twiddler, a dreamer, a silly heart, and she is a jabberbox. And, frankly," she adds, "I don't think she takes a thing in her life or her career as a student seriously." From her tart moniker to this unlikely rant, Horgarth is villainized with a subtlety generally reserved for wicked witches of Oz (Hughes's talent for crafting deft, believably idiosyncratic characterizations of teaching professionals abandons him here), though she's merely the most blatant of many straw men superfluously lined up for Buck to knock down like pins. (No surprise: he's a bowler.) Between the outsize humanity that Candy brings to any role--that's not a fat joke--and Buck's underdog positioning within the Russell household (this must be the smallest-scale of the so-called snobs-vs.-slobs comedies), the movie doesn't need to keep coming up with ways to get us on his side. If anything, Buck's takedown of Mrs. (Ms.?) Horgarth, in particular, has the opposite effect in engendering sympathy for her, because he's swatting a fly with a Buick: "Go downtown and have a rat gnaw that thing off your face," he barks, flicking a quarter at her. This is after calling her a, yes, "dried-up skag." It's an ugly button on a detour that is, I suspect, all pretext for the priceless image of Candy crouching before a child's urinal--and would be utterly fruitless without it.
Yet Buck's volatile streak isn't exactly out of character. When the film came out, a number of reviewers made the same observation that it was like a spin-off for Candy's Planes, Trains & Automobiles alter ego Del Griffith, but about the only thing these two characters have in common is the actor playing them. Del's famous monologue ("I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. 'Cause I'm the real article. What you see is what you get"), for starters, just wouldn't sound right coming out of Buck's mouth--not because he's unmarried and jobless (though there's that), but because Del and Buck are lonely for different reasons. A traveling salesman, Del, we infer, hit the road following his wife's death; his nomadic lifestyle has left him with a network of friendly faces but no friends, per se. Buck, on the other hand, has alienated the people he loves--brother Bob, for instance--with his stubborn devotion to bachelorhood. If there's an equivalent to 'the Del Griffith speech' in Uncle Buck, it's this drunken soliloquy Buck delivers to a dog:
People used to say to me, "Buck, you are one lucky son of a bitch. You got it made, Buck." And I did. They'd say, "Man, look at you. You don't have any kids, any wife. You don't have a desk, an office. You don't have a boss to worry about." They were right. I had it made. Only thing now is, Perce, nobody says that anymore. Oh, boy. But... It'll all be better tomorrow. It always is. Because tomorrow, we go to the track. Win some dough, some serious dough.
It'd be overstating things to classify Buck as a misanthrope, but he's got a bitter edge to him that Del does not--yell at Del and his feelings are hurt; yell at Buck at your peril--and that's likely intensified by circumstances in the film forcing him to take a good, hard look at his life. The picture's Rosetta stone, then, might be this exchange between Buck and Tia, in which Buck offers an unsolicited, knee-jerk appraisal of Tia's admittedly douchey boyfriend, Bug (The Boy Who Could Fly himself, Jay Underwood):
BUCK: The guy's a predator and you're his prey.
BUCK: You bet.
TIA: How do you know?
BUCK: When I was his age, I was the guy zooming the girls like you. Pretty face, big chip on your shoulder.
It's what makes his menacing of "Bug" (the movie does not overlook the homophonic similarity of their names) palatable and, moreover, dramatically defensible: Buck is his own worst enemy, so it makes sense that he would do battle against a version of himself. If the film were released today, in a climate where audiences are used to even the most innocuous entertainments toying with their perception of reality, we might find ourselves questioning the very existence of Bug.
Uncle Buck is what is sometimes sardonically referred to as a coming-of-middle-age story. Late in the film, as he prepares to take Maizy and nephew Miles (Culkin, adorable) to the track with him so he can clean up on a hot tip, Buck has an epiphany. Spying them in the rearview mirror of his beater, he crumbles4, realizing it would be bad parenting not only to expose these wide-eyed innocents to what he calls his "living," but also to go gambling instead of saving Natalie Wood from the proverbial Indians, as Bug's lured Tia away for a weekend of presumed debauchery. But Buck is shocked out of his complacency well before that, I believe, by his discovery that his brother's wedding photo is folded over to crop Buck out of the picture. (A brief aside about this scenelet: Hughes shows commendable restraint in setting it to the bleak sound of crinkling paper and eschewing reaction shots, forcing a subjective identification with Buck that's absolutely devastating.) To stop haemorrhaging the respect of the status quo, he has to start making some concessions to it. That's not necessarily Buck's takeaway from this adventure, or ours, but it's why, even to us, he looks a little different at the end of the film. It's clear that what's holding him back is not antipathy for domesticity but a fear of responsibility--and it's clear in the final scenes that he's begun to conquer that fear.
Alas, happy endings in John Hughes movies are not so much explicitly provided as viewer-extrapolated; it's a real gift, unparalleled in the commercial cinema. The Breakfast Club ends in a pseudo-triumphant fist-pump--there's no way the high-school ecosystem doesn't revert to default come Monday morning. The shit-eating grin that caps Ferris Bueller's Day Off deflects the world of hurt in store for the hero's best friend5, while Weird Science, in the midst of wrapping up the plot, has that discombobulating moment where Wyatt's father rebuffs a hug from his son. And though Buck departs the Russell household with his head held high, socially validated by the approving, conspiratorial gaze of the family's toughest nut to crack (Tia, natch) and by the girl on his arm, the latter is still the same person whom Mrs. Russell, condensing a wealth of condescension into a fact-based statement as only a suburban mom can, described at the beginning of the film as "that woman who sells tires." What's changed for Cindy?, I can't help wondering. Her father's brush with death has undoubtedly softened her, but what of Buck's transformation is discernible to her or relevant to her worldview? I think the placid smile on her face in the film's final moments has more to do with relief than with a change of heart. The tragedy of Uncle Buck is that it probably takes another heart attack before he sees these kids again.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Universal brings Uncle Buck to Blu-ray in a decently filmic 1.85:1, 1080p transfer. The image isn't immune to the edge-enhancement that beleaguers Universal's catalogue titles on BD, but the presentation looks considerably less electronic than did the DVD. Flesh tones have unfortunately not shed the purplish tincture that affects so many contemporaneous releases from the studio, but the colouring in general is bold, bordering on oversaturated. Although a light amount of black crush asserts itself early and often, dynamic range impresses in nighttime exteriors. The source print isn't spotless but betrays the majority of its aberrations during opticals. Unfortunately, the audio isn't lossless, though for years I put up with a VHS copy that had its left and right channels reversed, so I'll take what I can get. If the DTS 2.0 surround soundtrack is missing a certain je ne sais quoi, it offers crisp dialogue and credible bass; I suspect that knowing it clocks in at 384kbps in advance has a more negative impact on one's assessment of it than the miserly bitrate itself. There are no extras on this disc. Originally published: March 12, 2012.
1. When I first heard "Laugh, Laugh" independent of the film, I was astounded to discover that only one "Oh, so lonely" comes at the end of the song. Hughes added a couple more, valuing effect over fidelity like the consummate filmmaker he is. return
2. Of course, his constant courting of a young audience thereafter was a kind of regression in and of itself. return
3. It's why the Stooges' act had to be toned down when they made the transition to features, and paradoxically why those movies (The Three Stooges in Orbit, for example) are terrible. return
4. Hughes, in a rare television appearance following the death of John Candy, singled out this moment as proof of Candy's dramatic promise/prowess. return
5. I knew a Cameron Frye type. To the surprise of few, he stabbed himself in the chest. return