Although only moderately successful at the box office, Sixteen Candles was considered one of the best films in 1984, but more than that, it ushered in a whole new genre of teen comedies with a far more realistic approach to the ‘middle-class’ and moved away from the Animal House/Porky’s type depiction that had become so popular. It was also John Hughes’ directorial debut, even though he’d penned many successful films before (and, indeed, would continue to do so) and with it the fledgling ‘brat pack’ of actors began to take form. Hughes’ depiction of teen angst and growing pains was filled with emotion, and his stories, even with their slightly absurd bent, were nevertheless grounded in a sensible reality – the over-riding theme of coming to terms with growing up being universally apparent. The critical success of Sixteen Candles saw Hughes capitalise on the formula with more commercially successful films such as The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986) and the slightly more surreal, but still containing the same themes, Weird Science (1985) and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), and other out and out comedies such as National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985) and Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987). It was Hughes’ friendship with one of the stars of that latter film, John Candy, whom he met some four years earlier on the set of another of his films, that caused him to later leave the film industry altogether – that was 1994, the same year in which Candy died, the upset proving too much for Hughes to carry on. But before that, they would work together on arguably Hughes’ most famous work Home Alone in 1990, and before that, they had one last hurrah in the form of Uncle Buck in 1989, and this film marks the last of the teen angst films and the genesis of the more, full on child friendly comedies that hereafter took over Hughes’ life.
Looking back, Uncle Buck has a fairly formulaic plot, but at the time was still quite fresh; an unsuitable adult forced into babysitting due to a family crisis, and initial resentment blossoms into full on friendship with the help of a personal predicament and aided by some heart-warming scenes. The comedy coming in the form of ‘fish out of water’ and general slapstick, both of which work extremely well in the context of this film. Hughes’ main protagonist, the uncle of the title is played by the extremely lovable John Candy; an actor/comedian that had that wonderful ability to be both effortlessly charming and whimsically funny but, as with all comedians worth their salt, had an undeniable tragedy that enabled him to plumb the depths of pathos but with genuinely warm character; all these traits come into play with Buck. When we first meet him as a character, we instinctively know he is a rogue with a good heart. In his dinner meeting with his on and off girlfriend of eight years, Chanice (Amy Madigan), Buck is promising to come to work for her in the her tyre shop (his first ever job) as previous to this he made his living by gambling (or cheating at the race track), bowling or whatever it took to make money without a steady job. His life, it seems, is one big game, the sweet life of a teenager, wanting and accepting no responsibilities, and one that he simply refuses to give up. Things, however, take a dramatic turn when that night his brother calls to ask him to babysit his kids due to his wife’s father having a heart-attack, and they have no other option as they have recently moved to the area for their jobs. Never letting the family down, Buck readily agrees.
Bob and Cindy’s move did, of course, have the disadvantage of separating them, and their kids, from the respective friends they had built up, this is hard for them all, but more so for Tia, their teenage daughter, who resents them to near hateful levels. She is particularly spiteful towards her mother, always taking the time to spit venom, both to her face, and about her, to the other two younger siblings. Tia was Jean Louisa Kelly’s first film role and at the age of seventeen at the time of filming she was just two years older than her character. She plays her at best as a very spoilt teenager and at worst as an evil bitch – there is acid behind her eyes and her actions are not those of a rebel, but one out to harm herself. Now, as alluded to earlier, Uncle Buck was on the cusp of the family comedies that Hughes would become most famous for, but it still contains the teenage angst – Tia typifies that angst, but pushes it a little too far, because the rest of the film plays out in the comedy vein; essentially she becomes a little bit of an anomaly, a vestige of Hughes’ own writings. And Kelly nails the part so well that there is little sympathy for the character, in essence she deserves what she gets, and that doesn’t quite sit right with the rest of the film, and it's one aspect that it never quite manages to come back from, despite Candy’s heart-warming performance. For when these two share screen time there are sparks, and one wonders why Buck would go all out to find her once she runs, even sacrificing his own livelihood in the process. The scene in the car as Buck is torn on this decision is an incredible piece of acting from Candy, everything is right there on his face, the total indecision, the right, the wrong, the sheer despair of his situation – I don’t mind admitting that it always moves me.
Of course the family element comes in the form of the two child actors chosen to play the younger family members of Miles and Maizy. Maizy was played with utter delight by Gaby Hoffmann, whose verbal sparring with Tia in the beginning shows that she too can give as good as she gets, but with her cute charm and winning smile is still the little girl. The real star, though, is Macaulay Culkin as Miles, in what was a career defining moment that cemented his turn in the Home Alone films that followed; Culkin proved that a good child actor, given the right motivation and script could share the screen time with a great actor and steal the show – with those huge open eyes, big ears and open mouth, Culkin did unintentionally steal the show right from under the nose of every scene he was in, and in large part added to the success of the picture.
Candy himself was on top form as Buck, using all the traits illustrated above he is nothing but a loveable character and shows none of the aspects that may see him be folded out of a wedding picture, for example. In fact his hard, but fair, line with Tia, his absolute defence of Maizy’s behaviour to her school deputy principal or his defence of the children against a drunk clown highlight him as more caring towards his charges than their own parents. He also has some genuinely tender moments, his lamenting of his life one drunken night, the aforementioned decision in the car, and his final goodbye to name but three. But more than that he also has that mischievous element, that twinkle in his eye, when he is threatening Bug with the hatchet, or standing at a doorway, drill in hand, you can read his intentions clearly in his mannerisms – Candy was a terrific talent and never more so than as Buck.
To help alleviate some of the angst, there is a healthy amount of comedy on show, most from Candy himself, be it wit (staring at the deputy principal's mole and continually making reference to it), or slapstick (“huh, unbreakable” – smash) there is plenty to tickle the funny bone. Hughes just manages to tip the scales towards comedy with this one, and it did need it as Tia was such a powerful downward force. Her comeuppance and reconciliation, both with Buck and her mum, are suitably emotive and here rests the emotional core of the film.
Uncle Buck may not be the best film ever made, many dismiss it as merely watchable, but it has its heart in the right place and deserves to be remembered for more than just a series of firsts (Culkin’s appearance, Hughes’ new direction). It never fails to raise a smile and will always leave you satisfied.
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