**/**** Image B Sound B+ Commentary B-
starring James Belushi, Kelly Lynch, Alisan Porter, John Getz
written and directed by John Hughes
by Bill Chambers John Hughes almost returned to directing with last year's Maid in Manhattan, and Curly Sue, the last film with Hughes at the helm, perhaps offers some explanation beyond his reported displeasure with having to cast Jennifer Lopez as to why the torch was ultimately passed to Wayne Wang. In Curly Sue's best bit, the housekeeper (Viveka Davis, a genuine comic find) of an upscale Manhattan apartment gambles away her paycheck playing poker against the two derelicts who've mostly conned their way into staying there. Davis has everything that Lopez doesn't in Maid in Manhattan: modesty, natural beauty, charisma, a wry sense of humour--you could watch a whole movie about this persona, which is probably what Hughes had in mind, and her one sequence ends with a joke that also happens to be a far more accurate representation of the subtle fear that aristocracy puts in the minimum-wager than any of the Cinderella markers you'll find in Maid in Manhattan. Or anything else you'll find in Curly Sue, for that matter.
The whole of Curly Sue is something of a bizarro retelling of Cinderella, as well as an unsolicited tribute not necessarily to Shirley Temple, but to the ethos that made her a star. Trouble is, it hasn't been The Depression for, oh, seventy years or so; the poster image of a smirking ragamuffin who looked poised to break into a rendition of "The Good Ship Lollipop" was so anachronistic as to have an indecipherable objective for early-Nineties moviegoers. I remember the dismay I felt the first time I saw Curly Sue's one-sheet: it meant that Hughes, the most pop-culturally-attuned filmmaker of the 1980s, had lost touch with his constituency. As if I enjoy demonstrating this, since hanging up his director's cap, Hughes has produced and/or scripted a series of junk kids movies (a few of which stuck only through sheer force of hype)--in addition to overseeing the screenwriting debut of son James, New Port South, a teen-aimed film, like those Hughes became famous for, that may well speak to the specifics of today's youth but fails to get at anything universal. (My mother loves Hughes's Ferris Bueller's Day Off.) There's certainly no guarantee a John Hughes Maid in Manhattan would've been any less intolerable.
In Curly Sue, vagabonds Bill (James Belushi) and Sue (Alisan Porter), the orphan he inherited when her mother "got V.D.," extort the curiously-named divorce lawyer Grey (a kind of breathtaking Kelly Lynch) for a hot meal by pretending she hit Bill with her car. When she hits him again, for real this time, she invites Bill to recuperate with Sue at her penthouse, to the chagrin of her domineering boyfriend (John Getz, doing his unctuous routine), who isn't jealous but instead offended that Grey would fraternize with people in a lower economic tier. The movie is at its sharpest when contrasting Grey's office and personal lives: she encourages her female clientele to bleed their husbands dry in cathartic compensation for letting the men she knows bully her--including her boss and the neighbourly doctor who tends to Bill's wounds.
Too bad Grey is otherwise feebly characterized. For one thing, her initial encounter with Curly Sue leaves too great an impression on her, as inferred from Hughes's absurdly hollow flashbacks to Sue staring up at Grey after the staged accident and Sue shovelling food into her mouth. There's nothing in Grey's introductory scenes to suggest she's the nurturing type, or even that she's hiding that about herself, yet here she is overcome with the fever to rear children like Kristy Briggs in Hughes's She's Having a Baby. Hughes knows girls, but I'd say he's presumptuous of women.
Where does all this leave Bill? (Behold, the age-old question.) As in the majority of Hughes's scenarios, the poor seek the acceptance of the rich in Curly Sue, but while the eventual couplings of Molly and Judd in The Breakfast Club, Molly and Andrew in Pretty in Pink, Steve and John in Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and even the white- and blue-collar families sharing a cottage in The Great Outdoors give off the impression of manifest destiny, Bill and Grey's union is strictly automatic, as though they fell asleep watching prior John Hughes movies and it brainwashed them. Class is oversimplified in Curly Sue, with Grey under the impression that a tramp becomes a blueblood through a good scrubbing and a change of clothes and Bill surrendering anti-climactically to her idealism. It's the first film in which Hughes flat-out sentimentalizes being rich--moreover, selling-out. Too bad he went out on such a cynical note.
Warner presents Curly Sue on DVD in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that suggests the studio didn't put every care and effort into this title. Though whites are brilliant and shadow detail is adequate, flecks of dirt abound, especially during the opening credits, which are lousy with debris beyond the expected optical schmutz. As an aside, cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball's fondness for smoking-out backgrounds results in an aesthetic better suited to John Woo (with whom he would later work on three pictures) than to John Hughes. The Dolby Surround soundtrack isn't showily active until Sue, Grey, and Bill go see a 3-D movie, but Georges Delerue's pacifying yet quirky score is well-represented in the front mains.
Alisan Porter, now 22, provides an optional 1-minute video introduction in which she invites us to listen to her feature-length commentary--a unique yakker, at the very least, wherein she struggles to remember the shooting of some stuff but recalls the general experience vividly. She hasn't a non-nostalgic take on the film but does paint a portrait on a generous canvas of what it's like to be the focal point of a Hollywood production at the age of nine, from the second-hand smoke of her co-stars to the tough-love attempts to extract a performance out of her, to the potential psychological damage of thinking of Jim Belushi as your father. (Okay, I sorta trumped that last one up.) Cast/crew bios and Curly Sue's theatrical trailer round out the platter. Originally published: July 12, 2003.