Dan Stephens looks at one of the 1980s’ finest family comedies from two undisputed kings of the decade – John Hughes & John Candy. The film highlights the special talents of both men, especially its star whose charisma elevates Uncle Buck to one of the actor’s best movies.
If ever a film genuinely magnified the intangible charisma of an actor, it would be John Hughes’ Uncle Buck. The actor in question? John Candy. He had an ability, regardless of character, prominence within the plot, whether the film was actually any good, to produce performances that transcended the screen. He had an innate ability to connect with audiences like few other comic actors, achieving a poignancy that mixed natural, recognisable character flaws with the wit to make those fragilities very, very funny.
His best work features in his collaborations with John Hughes, Uncle Buck slotting in nicely behind Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Both films feature Candy in similar roles – a carefree, bumbling, working class nice guy whose compassion, naivety and instinctive approach to life often gets him into trouble. I doubt Hughes ever saw the characters written for Candy as versions of himself, rather a rarely seen larger-than-life uncle whose tall tales at family gatherings probably evoked both sympathy and laughter.
What Hughes gets out of Candy in their work together is a multi-layered personality, where the tragedy of misfortune or misadventure makes us care without becoming clogged by sentimentality. There’s a show of toughness as genuine as his broken heart. They are lovable traits borne out of hardship. That’s why when Candy’s funny, we laugh a little harder, when he’s sad, we cry a little longer.
In many ways, his performance in Uncle Buck is as good if not better than Planes, Trains and Automobiles. What makes the film inferior is the unfortunate existence of Tia Russell. Hughes is not known for his subtlety but Tia really is one of his worst creations. A spoilt teenager who treats her mother like dirt, actor Jean Louisa Kelly has little room to manoeuvre, an expression of perennial anger fitting just fine. We know where Hughes is going with this, we understand he’s trying to convey the message of hormonal, social and familial angst before two characters can “learn from one another” for the happy ending. But it’s too heavy-handed.
That’s Uncle Buck’s major flaw. And it’s something that’s always hindered it for me. But, the presence of Candy goes a long way to making any negativity towards Hughes’ 1989 effort feel more distant than it ought to be. Indeed, there are so many stand out moments based solely on what Candy’s character does or says that you forget Tia’s role in the story. That’s what makes his performance here so special.
I often think about that cruel dressing down of the Miss Trunchbull-like assistant principal and the vision of a rat gnawing the wart off her face. The scene follows Buck in the children’s toilets having to kneel down to use the lowered urinals. Hughes also gives us one of his most memorable conversations, and of course Candy is at the centre of it. It concerns Buck being questioned by Miles (a pre-Home Alone Macaulay Culkin) about his credentials as a child’s guardian.
It’s straight from the John Hughes playbook: astute observation with a child’s innocence. The simple questions and straightforward answers hit us with the director’s rapid cuts between the child’s face and Buck. “Where’s your wife? / Don’t have one. / How come? / It’s a long story. / You have kids? / No I don’t. / How come? / It’s an even longer story. / Are you my dad’s brother? / What’s your record for consecutive questions asked? / 38. / I’m your dad’s brother alright.”
Hughes gets a sincerity out of Candy few other directors manage. When you look at his other movies and TV appearances, like many of his comic peers, there’s a distinct sense of “performance” in Candy’s work, his characterisation drawn from caricature. Uncle Buck is free from that. Even the larger-than-life histrionics of Buck’s fish out of water are organic. He’s the endearing heart from which this film lives and breathes.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: John Hughes
Written by: John Hughes
Starring: John Candy
Released: 1989 / Genre: Comedy
Country: USA / IMDB
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