I miss John Candy. I grew up watching the much-beloved comedian on SCTV and then his supporting turns in classic comedies like The Blues Brothers (1980) and Stripes (1981), but it was the movies he did with John Hughes that best displayed his comedic talents. They worked together on seven different occasions, from a walk-on role in Home Alone (1990) to co-starring with Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), but it was Candy’s starring role as the titular protagonist in Uncle Buck (1989) that brought out the best in him. Over the years, Candy and Hughes had become close friends and this movie could be seen as a cinematic love letter from the filmmaker to the comedian, tailoring a role specifically for him that best utilized his comedic skills.
When Cindy Russell’s (Elaine Bromka) father has a heart attack, she and her husband Bob (Garrett M. Brown) rush to be by his side, but who will watch their three children? Bob suggests his brother Buck (Candy). Cindy is apprehensive because he is single, does not hold down a steady job, gambles, and has zero experience with children, but after exhausting all other possibilities they go with him.
This premise sets up a clash of cultures between the Chicago-based Buck and three kids in suburbia. He certainly has his hands full with them. Miles (Macaulay Culkin) is one of those precocious, wise-beyond-his-years little kids as is his sister Maisy (GabyHoffmann), a cute-as-a-button little girl. Then there is Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly), the holy teen terror, bitter about her parents moving from Indianapolis, where she was happy, to the suburbs of Chicago. She takes out this resentment on everyone in the form of withering sarcasm and outright nastiness. This sets up a battle of wills between the irrepressible Buck and the perpetually bitchy Tia.
While it is true that Buck is a little rough around the edges, he is adept at learning on the job and is fiercely protective of the kids, scaring off a sleazy bowler that hits on Tia at a bowling alley and punching out a kids party clown that turns up drunk at Miles’ birthday bash.
Uncle Buck is a fantastic showcase for John Candy’s considerable talents as he hits the big comedic set pieces out of the park while also doing all sorts of little bits of business, like a lazy Buck vacuuming Corn Flakes off his chest or driving the kids to school in his beat-up old boat of a car that backfires as if on cue, thoroughly embarrassing Tia in front of her classmates. Candy is also adept at visual comedy, like the moment where Buck makes a pancake so big he has to flip it with a snow shovel! For all of the weapons in his comedic arsenal, Hughes also gave Candy moments to tone down the shtick, like in the scene where Buck stands up to the assistant principal that disparages Maizy with a passionately delivered tirade:
“I don’t think I want to know a six-year-old who isn’t a dreamer, or a sillyheart. And I sure don’t want to know one who takes their student career seriously. I don’t have a college degree. I don’t even have a job. But I know a good kid when I see one. Because they’re all good kids, until dried-out, brain-dead skags like you drag them down and convince them they’re no good.”
This scene showcases Candy’s ability to do more than just tell jokes but also show how serious Buck is about taking care of these kids and how attached to them he has become. Candy also excels at the quieter, character moments, like when Buck confronts Tia after she orchestrates the break-up between him and his long-time, frustrated girlfriend (Amy Madigan). You expect him to really let the teenager have it but he doesn’t and you can see him keeping the explosive anger in check, simmering in Candy’s eyes.
Hughes isn’t afraid to inject serious moments here and there, mostly in the form of Tia’s bitter resentment towards the world, more specifically her mother. Jean Louisa Kelly does an excellent job of portraying a teenage girl filled with angst. Initially, Tia seems like a typical teen with an enormous chip on her shoulder but when she challenges Buck’s authority, it forces him to take a good look at the state of his own personal life.
In his feature film debut, Macaulay Culkin makes quite an impact, most notably in an amusing scene where Miles grills Buck with a series of personal questions, which he answers right back at him with crackerjack comic timing. He and fellow adorable ragamuffin, Gaby Hoffman primarily look and act cute, getting occasional well-timed zinger and handle them like old pros.
Much of the humor in Uncle Buck is derived from how Buck navigates the tricky waters of domesticity with his bachelor blue-collar ways clashing with life in the suburbs. While this makes him a cultural fish out of water, he also gives the kids a taste of his life when he takes them bowling and they meet some of the ne’er-do-wells that populate his world.
Uncle Buck could have easily resorted to being a Mr. Mom (1983) clone, which Hughes also wrote, but he deftly avoids this by showing a different clash of cultures. Whereas Mr. Mom featured an executive trying his hand at childrearing, Uncle Buck features an everyman afraid to commit to his girlfriend until he learns what it means to commit yourself to others that depend on him for basic things like food and security.
After Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), Hughes stopped making teen movies and moved into family fare with Home Alone (1990) and Curly Sue (1991), which proved to be a very smart, financial move on his part. Clearly, he realized that his brand of teen movies were played out and he had said everything he wanted to about the genre and wanted to try something new. What better collaborator to help make this transition then Candy, whom he had worked with more often than anyone else. They were close friends off-camera, their families hung out together. Hughes was understandably shaken when Candy died suddenly of a heart attack in 1994. It is no coincidence that he made fewer movies afterwards and eventually quietly retired from the business altogether.
Uncle Buck is Candy at his most charming and endearing but without being sappy as he keeps his performance grounded so that everything he says and does feels genuine. Hughes excelled at making entertaining crowd pleasers and this movie is a prime example. It is also a sobering reminder of how much Candy and his brand of comedy are sorely missed. The world is a poorer place without him and Hughes in it.