Unless you were comatose during the entire decade of the eighties, you can't help but be aware of the movies of director John Hughes - Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Home Alone... the list of instantly recognizable titles, like a list of Hall & Oates radio hits, just goes on much longer than you might have expected.
High art? Not really. Reliably (maybe deceptively) insubstantial, and shamelessly aimed right at the demographic center of the country's pop sensibilities, Hughes' writing and direction were designed to achieve the broadest appeal possible. By turns naughty and immature, cool and trendy, corny and schmaltzy, Hughes had this hand on he pulsing jugular of the ticket-buying public.
It's too easy to dismiss Hughes as a hack, a purveyor of cinematic cotton candy, founder of the Gen-X-ploitaion genre, working in a limited palette of teen angst, schoolboy humor, clueless adults, predictable sentimentality, double-takes and pratfalls.
But understanding the common life of common folk isn't as easy as it sounds, nor is it a necessarily a fruitless artistic endeavor. Broad popularity may, of course, come from a calculating appeal to the baser instincts (which Hughes wasn't above either), but it may also flow from a higher source - from a common appreciation for the bumps and thrills of everyday life.
There are two John Hughes films that are staples in our house, movies we watch at least once a year, if not more; these are Uncle Buck (the dialog of which my brother and I can probably reconstruct verbatim) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Both these films are, on the surface, goofball comedies. One could write the promo copy for Uncle Buck blindfold... something like; "Irrepressible (and irresponsible) free-wheeling bachelor uncle is suddenly called upon to babysit his straight-laced brother's kids in the suburbs... hilarity ensues.". The same is true for Planes, Trains and Automobiles; "A bumbling and gregarious screwball salesman and a fastidious and upscale (and uptight) business professional become reluctant traveling companions. Hilarity ensues. Will their misadventures keep them from making it home in time for Thanksgiving? The wackiest buddy comedy since The Odd Couple.". The scripts ought to be so obvious that they write themselves... except they aren't and they don't.
Both of these comedies boast a surprising amount of character development, and both probe the human condition and the importance of family in artistically significant ways. Both also benefit immensely from overachieving performances from the lead cast... from John Candy (in both films) and Steve Martin (Planes...).
Martin and Candy are a joy to watch together in Planes..., bringing more authenticity and nuance to their roles than I think any other contemporary duo could have pulled off with the same material, and more emotional depth than any screwball comedy has a right to. I recognize both the main characters in Planes Trains and Automobiles... not just because I have known both kinds of guys, but because I have (at one time or another) been both kinds of guys. I have been the self absorbed prig - cold, and too wrapped up in my own life to notice or care much about the struggles of others. Too concerned about my own dignity. I have also been the crass, obtuse, naive and unaccountably optimistic buffoon, always assuming that everyone is glad to see me, and that everyone is equally glad to listen to any mundane comment that might come out of my mouth. I have been the affable mooch who overstays his welcome.
I think most people have played both roles to some extent.
Martin's and Candy's dual performance is at times truly painful to watch, which makes the hilarious moments (of which there are plenty) ring that much truer. One of our favorite family films (in spite of one inexplicable and inexcusable string of expletives, which we mute every year).
There is a scene in Uncle Buck that is well worth noting. In it, Buck has been left in the lurch by Tia, his teenaged niece who had promised to babysit her younger siblings while Buck went to the horse track to play a tip that will likely bring him enough income to last him half a year, at least. It's a BIG DEAL for him.
Seeing no alternative, he loads the two cute little kids into his giant old beater of a car and heads to the horse track, where madcap hilarity ensues, the kids quickly get into big trouble and lead some shady underworld crooks on a merry chase, several snack vendor carts are overturned and Buck, in a comedy of errors, ends up riding the prize-winning horse to an unlikely victory, hanging on for dear life all the way.
Except, that's not what happens at all. What happens is that Buck loads the kids in the car and is all set to go to the track. The car is running. He looks at himself in the mirror. He looks at the kids bundled in the back seat. He looks back at himself... he stares into space, and in a tortured agony of conscience and worry he decides he can't go through with it. This all plays out on his face in just a few seconds, a performance comparable to Jimmy Stewart's masterful and wrenching depiction of George Bailey's desperate prayer at Martini's bar in It's a Wondeful Life.
Buck is tired and ashamed of leading the worthless life of a petty gambler. He is more concerned about the runaway Tia, and about bringing two innocent young munchkins to a rather seedy fixed horse race, than he is about his own momentary welfare. He (not without pain) lets the horse race go, unloads the kids and calls for help. He mans up.
This is Hughes taking the road less traveled, passing up the easy joke in exchange for a truly great and moving human moment. The zany horse track action must have been nearly as tempting to director Hughes as the easy money was to the character, Buck Russell. But Hughes (through Buck) went for something better, and was rewarded for his effort.
It's an overlooked scene, and one I've never heard discussed, but it just about makes me cry every time I see it.