*½/**** Image C Sound A Extras B-
starring Kevin Bacon, Elizabeth McGovern, Alec Baldwin, James Ray
written and directed by John Hughes
by Bill Chambers I rented She's Having a Baby the moment it hit video out of brand loyalty to John Hughes, whose teen movies had had an epic and indoctrinating influence on my peers and me. And I was largely indifferent to it up until the closing-credits montage of celebrities tossing out names for the titular baby, at which point my lack of enthusiasm gave way to dismay.* At the time, I assumed the film's subject matter was too adult for 13-year-old me (and it was), but 18 years later I didn't like it any better, and after revisiting it with another 15 years' distance--which brings us to 2021--I've decided that when it comes to She's Having a Baby, "it's not me, it's you" suffices. Even though the travails of one Jefferson "Jake" Briggs remain as hypothetical to me as they were when I was a kid, movies, as Roger Ebert was fond of saying, are empathy machines; the cinema would never have flourished if films demanded a 1:1 relationship with the viewer's experiences. (Granted, this is also how they've gotten away with being so lily-white for so long.) Definitive proof of She's Having a Baby's mediocrity came for me when I saw Tamara Jenkins's Private Life, in which a cultured New York couple struggles with infertility as their biological clocks wind down. It was, next to First Reformed, my favourite film of 2018. I've never been on that side of the family equation and I'm not a churchgoer, either.
It's not just me, of course. Although She's Having a Baby was shot before Planes, Trains & Automobiles, an unmotivated Paramount sat on it for so long that it wound up coming out afterwards, in the doldrums of February 1988, causing Hughes to permanently sever ties with the studio. The picture was a critical and commercial flop, grossing $16M against a $20M budget, making it the least profitable film of Hughes's directing career by a fairly wide margin. It didn't even do well on VHS, failing to crack the year's Top 50 video rentals according to BILLBOARD magazine. Hughes, having conceived She's Having a Baby as a roman à clef about his early days in advertising, when he was a newlywed with a baby on the way (he had gone so far as to end the film with a dedication to his wife, Nancy, "for inspiration"), was intimately stung by its poor reception, and he approached the rest of his career with a cynical detachment that reached its mercenary nadir in the dire screenplays for Flubber and Home Alone 3. A world-class grudge-bearer, he inevitably got around to turning that spite on the masses. Yet the problem with She's Having a Baby is how maddeningly impersonal it seems. "This is basic humanity, I mean, it's really, it's...it is sort of those truths about male-female relationships," Hughes said in an interview that appends the film on Blu-ray. He thought he'd happened on a universal story--the growing pains of marriage--but the way he tells it feels more like truisms dramatized than like truth portrayed.
To be fair, She's Having a Baby evinces a certain ambition on Hughes's part in expanding the usual scope of his narratives, which typically unfolded within the narrow timeframe of a day or two, a week at best. (It's surprising that he never wrote plays.) The teen genre in which he toiled lent itself to these concentrated windows of time, since people at that age tend to metabolize drama at a faster rate. In She's Having a Baby, his canvas dilates to cover months if not years, from the day of a couple's wedding to the arrival of their firstborn, and it incorporates flashbacks as well as Hughes's usual assortment of expressionistic gags, some of which balloon into full-blown fantasy sequences as Jake's neuroses bubble to the surface. Having Bob Fosse's editor Alan Heim cut the picture announces Hughes's intentions, I think, for She's Having a Baby to be his All That Jazz, if not his 8½ (to which All That Jazz was spiritually indebted), yet his alter ego is neither flamboyant enough nor counterpointed enough for the comparison to register as either homage or ironic parody. If you ever wondered what the Republican version of Fellini would look like, the hopelessly mechanical sequence where the residents of a suburban enclave break into a Busby Berkeley-ish dance number with their lawnmowers should give you a pretty good idea. Sustaining a gag for longer than a shot causes Hughes noticeable strain. He is, at heart, a single-panel cartoonist.
Wilt thou provide her with credit cards and a four-bedroom, two-and-one-half bath home with central air and professional decorating? A Mercedes Benz, two weeks in the Bahamas every spring? Wilt thou remember the little things, like flowers on her anniversary, a kind word on a rough day, and an occasional, 'Gee, honey, you look pretty today'? Wilt thou be understanding when she is tired, headachy, or upset? When she feels ugly or has a big pimple on her chin? Wilt thou not be such a pig when you shower? Wilt thou listen patiently to stories about kids, colds, kids' entire clothes, shoes, and decorator chequebook covers?
That's the priest (Anthony Mockus Sr.), turning up the pressure on Jake (Bacon, who looks just like the movie-star caricature of his director) as Jake experiences a break from reality during the vows at his wedding to high-school sweetheart Kristy (Elizabeth McGovern) at the start of She's Having a Baby. This scene is a source of cognitive dissonance for the Hughes fan, and not simply because that type of gentiles-doing-Borscht "Tonight Show" humour was beneath him. To be a teenage girl in a John Hughes film is to be the most fully-realized person on screen at any given moment, but his view of adult women is revealed here to be much more limited. The priest's screed comes to resemble the three rules for preventing Gremlins; place Kristy on a pedestal, he says, and unfortunately this keeps Kristy just out of our reach. Bacon's later He Said, She Said suggests reparations for She's Having a Baby not venturing into the equal and opposite POV at times like these, although what's frustrating is that Jake vanishes, too, into this commitment to appeasing his wife and the expectations of domesticity. He's an automaton, questionably sentient--Hughes misjudges the power of the Kuleshov effect to broaden the emotional spectrum of Bacon's slack-jawed reaction shots--and practically mute.
Though I haven't done the math, I would bet that the exceedingly, nay, egregiously laconic Jake has more lines of narration than of actual dialogue--all of it delivered in the same rueful (and nasal) key as Richard Dreyfuss's voiceover from Stand By Me. Fitting: that movie was about the search for a dead body, while She's Having a Baby has us scouring the frame for a live one. Jake is a zombie suffering his doting wife, upward mobility/unearned privilege, and neighbourly neighbours in pissy silence. His buyer's remorse is so palpable that he spends most of the movie with the mien of a prison transfer. The part of She's Having a Baby that left a huge impression on me as a kid is when Jake is forced to fuck his ovulating wife and Hughes scores it to Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang." I mean, that's hilarious! It's the classy version of Al Bundy finding sex with Peg punishing; few can nail a needle-drop like John Hughes. The problem is that nothing for Jake isn't a grind, a hot minute into a lifetime with this woman. Kristy, for her part, is a cipher. There is an opportunity early on to unshrink this violet: Kristy complains of boredom and a desire to get a job, but the movie, which came from the same pen as the nominally progressive Mr. Mom, bulldozes past her hopes and dreams in a conversation Jake may as well be having with himself. Is having with himself. Until she contracts baby fever, Kristy's main personality trait is that she has the patience of a saint, which may feel to Hughes like he's polishing the halo of his real-life wife but plays like he's trying to get out of writing a complex female lead.
She's Having a Baby had the potential to be the confessional film Hughes might have thought he was making, that Bob Fosse and Federico Fellini most certainly made, by not filtering out the specifics of his biography until what was left was hacky material about the psychosexual appeal of lawnmowers and the embarrassment of giving a sperm sample. Jake lands a job in advertising, but we don't know what he does or whether he's any good at it. In reality, as a copywriter at Leo Burnett (one of the models for "Mad Men"'s Sterling Cooper agency), Hughes created Big Yella, the cowboy mascot for Sugar Corn Pops, and devised the iconic "credit card" ad campaign that helped boost Edge shaving gel's profile. He loitered in the offices of NATIONAL LAMPOON during frequent business trips to New York and covertly worked his way up to Senior Editor there while still earning a salary from Leo Burnett. Then he started a third side-hustle selling jokes to the likes of Henny Youngman and Joan Rivers for five bucks apiece. (Okay, I guess that sub-Borscht "Tonight Show" humour wasn't beneath him.) In She's Having a Baby, Jake is confronted with that age-old dilemma of monogamy--the buffet refusing to close after you've ordered from the menu--in repeatedly running into a sexy blonde (Isabel Lorca) he first spots at a trendy nightclub. As this is an earnest redux of the Christie Brinkley subplot from the Hughes-scripted National Lampoon's Vacation, maybe he was labouring to purge himself of something. Or maybe this was the first sign of a finite imagination that would spend the '90s recycling itself into oblivion.
Whatever it is, it's obvious, and unenlightening, and I'd wager that Hughes had much more fertile angles on the subject of temptation as a travelling salesman of sorts turned Hollywood power player. As the appointed Voice of a Generation, Hughes was afraid of looking solipsistic, perhaps, yet finding common emotional denominators in someone else's circumstances is the whole appeal of these quasi-autobiographies. I'm shattered by that breathtakingly stark edit from Roy Scheider's eyes as he floats towards the Angel of Death to the body bag zippering shut at the end of All That Jazz, and it would be hard to live less like Bob Fosse/"Joe Gideon" than I already do. Which is not to say there's no value in seeing an uncanny reflection of real life on screen, but when the author strips their own life of incident to be more 'relatable,' that frisson of truth disappears with it.
According to Hughes himself, She's Having a Baby is about discovering that getting married isn't like flipping a switch--you actually have to work at it to derive any satisfaction from it. That's a simple yet ripe premise for a movie that could set anyone from Ingmar Bergman to Will Ferrell on course for success, though it's not quite what She's Having a Baby is about in practice. Instead, it's about a guy who's waiting for that magical switch to flip, and it's only in almost losing a child that something like gratitude kicks in for him. This is slightly concerning, I hope you'll agree, because it suggests that having kids solves marital problems, which has always been monumentally bad advice. The funny thing is, with minor adjustments She's Having a Baby becomes a very credible portrait of depression. "Do you think I'll be happy?" a hesitant Jake asks best friend Davis (Alec Baldwin) outside the wedding chapel, where the bride's family impatiently awaits his arrival. "Yeah, you'll be happy," Davis says, adding, "you just won't know it, that's all." That describes friends of mine to a T, male and female alike, who struggle to recognize their good fortune through a fog of irrational pessimism and insecurity. Alas, Kristy short-circuits any possibility of reframing Jake's misery with a kind of genial indifference that superficializes his self-absorption, cementing their dynamic as the same "jackasses and the women who love them" trope that fuelled a thousand sitcoms thereafter.
There are three good scenes, or effective scenes, or interesting scenes, in She's Having a Baby. The first is a segue from Jake's final encounter with the Mystery Blonde to the jittery opening chords of Love & Rockets' lovably-interminable goth ballad "Haunted When the Minutes Drag." Hughes drizzles the song over Jake's lonely train ride home, the flickering fluorescents and smoke-filled atmosphere combining with Daniel Ash's chant-like vocals to provide a stylish respite from the JCPenney catalogue-ness of it all. Then there's Davis's attempted seduction of Kristy. Baldwin is electric in his second feature-film role as the least predictable of Hughes's loose cannons. His Davis, mourning the loss of his father, plays semantic games with Kristy like a house cat bats around an insect, then suddenly asks her to kiss him goodnight. "You're the only one I've ever loved," he blurts out once she's escaped his clutches. His motives for doing this, saying this, are questionable--he could be envious of Jake, which he claims to be; he could be legitimately seeking a connection in his grief; he could be trying to hurt Jake for leaving him, his "unsanctioned wife," for Kristy; he could, in fact, mean it (Hughes builds some enigmatic reaction shots of Davis into the wedding sequence)--but Kristy seems to privately know the correct answer, whatever it is. "I won't tell Jake about this. It isn't fatal," she says, sounding appropriately noir-ish as she simultaneously emasculates and pardons him. It's maddening to realize, 75 minutes in, that Hughes is capable of writing adult characters and situations this tantalizing, and that Kristy has hidden depths never to be further explored.
That's gratuitous enough, but 82 minutes of this 106-minute movie called She's Having a Baby have passed before Kristy announces her pregnancy. You've probably already guessed that the third good/effective/interesting scene in question follows Jake being forced to wait outside the delivery room after it's discovered the baby is in a breech position. Kate Bush recorded the devastating "This Woman's Work" expressly for this section of the film, though few would consider it the intellectual property of She's Having a Baby in the way that, say, "Don't You (Forget About Me)" belongs to The Breakfast Club. I mention this because, as much as I want to, I can't accuse Hughes of hijacking the song's power: these images and this music--Hughes cuts from Jake, bathed in a beatific pool of light, shedding a single tear to a drop of blood hitting the operating-room floor in slow-motion as Bush sings, "I should be crying, but I just can't let it show"--were designed to lend each other gravity.
Nevertheless, at the end of this 4-minute-and-25-second montage, arguably the finest in all of American '80s cinema (only Rocky IV's Eisenstein-worthy showstopper--James Brown's performance of "Living in America"--comes close to challenging it), I resent how wrung-out I feel. The grand weep the climax extracts from us is instructive of propaganda in the sense that the film truly doesn't deserve it. What makes this sequence doubly exasperating is how much faux flashback footage it contains that portends a warmer, funnier movie we were denied. In that respect, Bush's lyrics--"All the things I should've said that I never said/All the things we should've done though we never did" and "All the things I should've given but I didn't"--don't just pick up the slack on Jake's behalf but begin to function as film criticism. Still, when Jake's ornery father-in-law (William Windom) smiles affectionately and gives him a supportive thumbs-up from across the waiting room, I absolutely crumble at the tenderness and undiluted humanity of it. Oh, She's Having a Baby. I knew you had a little life in you yet.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The selection of titles in Paramount's "John Hughes: 5-Movie Collection" left many bewildered when it was first announced: Why these movies, two of which he didn't even direct? Of course the answer is that these are all the films made under Hughes's imprimatur at this particular studio. It's a complete though hardly definitive compilation of the Paramount years, with two of the discs hailing from the early days of the format and at least one of those, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, crying out for an upgrade. Meanwhile, one of the new discs--She's Having a Baby, as it happens--frankly sucks, and it seems unlikely that a do-over will ever happen at this late stage in physical-media preservation. This set is a slapdash effort whose primary selling point is all-in-one convenience, like those Kellogg's fun-paks of your favourite cereals--and it's currently the only way to possess Some Kind of Wonderful and She's Having a Baby on Blu-ray.
Both Some Kind of Wonderful and She's Having a Baby receive fresh HD scans that present the films at the screen-filling aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The bitrate on She's Having a Baby is staggeringly high, routinely clocking in at 40 Mbps--around double what a 4K title averages on Netflix. Unfortunately, the image is lousy with video noise, which likely contributed to the inflated bitrate. I was immediately reminded of the earliest, controversial Blu-ray releases from Blue Underground, such as Django and The Stendhal Syndrome, where the grain presented as tiny bubbles of static. (Neither Bryant Frazer nor myself, respectively, gave those discs the shellacking we should have.) Having discussed it with Bryant, our going theory is that noise-reduction was aggressively applied to She's Having a Baby, warranting a compensatory layer of fake grain that is interacting (badly) with whatever was left of the chunkier '80s film grain underneath, resulting in a scrim of electronic-looking interference. (The telltale sign of DVNR in this instance is that schmutz on the source print lingers for a couple of extra frames as the algorithm attempts to work it into the noise pattern--an annoying artifact in and of itself.) Whatever one's opinion of She's Having a Baby, this sub-par transfer is likely to become its digital tomb, marking it as something of a travesty. Small consolation that the colours and contrast are pretty much what you'd demand from them.
The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is comparatively flawless. There is one genuine "5.1 moment" that comes as a surprise during an otherwise subdued mix, wherein Jake imagines himself as a test dummy hurtling towards a crash. Overall, the lossless compression seems to lend more authority to the music and dialogue than they enjoyed on DVD and VHS. This is the most lightly supplemented platter of the lot, featuring only She's Having a Baby's theatrical trailer (in SD) and a 24-minute excerpt from the same John Hughes interview that gets apportioned across the collection, variously said to have been conducted (by no less than Kevin Bacon) in 1986 and 1987. It's telling that Bacon asks Hughes whether She's Having a Baby is "a funny movie" ("I've lost track," Bacon says), to which Hughes replies, "Yeah. It's very funny. And it's funny in a way that I haven't really done before." He goes on to call "the honesty of the piece" funny; I suspect that some of the fertility humour I view as hackneyed now wasn't a cliché in 1986 or 1987. Be aware that within five minutes, Bacon pivots from She's Having a Baby to Some Kind of Wonderful and a more general inquiry into Hughes's process. At one point, Hughes realizes he hasn't answered a question about producing to his own satisfaction and interrupts Bacon to circle back to it. It's a first-hand glimpse of Hughes's desire to control the narrative, and though I wouldn't describe him as combative or unforthcoming here, he appears to have his hackles up and not really be relating to Bacon as a trusted friend.
106 minutes; PG-13; 1.78:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, French DD 2.0 (Stereo), German DD 2.0 (Stereo); English, English SDH, French, German; BD-50; Region-free; Paramount
*Whatever goodwill the film's finale engenders gets obliterated by this embarrassing medley of famous faces--Hughes's friends, mainly, plus anyone who happened to be hanging around the Paramount lot (like the cast of "Cheers")--coming up with potential monikers for Jake and Kristy's son. It goes beyond breaking the fourth wall to poke a hole in some meta membrane that should remain sacrosanct. Two things come sharply into relief during this painful office-Christmas-party video writ large: Hughes is no longer the underdog; and he was no longer on speaking terms with four-fifths of the Breakfast Club. Dan Aykroyd's suggestions, by the way, are Bor-bor, Cryoborg, Gandor, Klaus, Valdor, Slagathor, Quig, Bligh, Nargalzius, Rolo, and Vordergan, because of course they are.