Curly Sue, has a certain reputation for awfulness that it does not deserve. Which is not remotely the same as claiming that it's really very good at all, for that is plainly not true - the film has a desperately cutesy-pie charm that drips with flop sweat - though it's also not true that the film was so bad, nor such a box office failure, that it forever nuked Hughes's career a mere eleven months after Home Alone propelled him and Hughes Entertainment to the very pinnacle of Hollywood success. It is clear enough to look at his output in 1989, 1990, and 1991 - Curly Sue was the sixth and final film with a Hughes screenplay in those three years - that he was running out of steam and looking for a chance to slow down, and it seems fair enough to assume anyway that he probably needed some time off of directing. It's also known that the March, 1994 death of John Candy wiped Hughes out emotionally, and even if had cranked out one more picture in the two years between Curly Sue and that date, it's easy to suppose that he would have retired at that point regardless.
Of course, the harsh reviews (the worst of his directorial career) and mediocre box office (right in the middle of the pack, though more than twice his all-time lowest-grosser, She's Having a Baby) could not possibly have been much comfort to a man who worked as hard as any other American filmmaker of the 1980s, and maybe that hastened his decision to withdraw to only writing and producing, and neither of those at nearly the same pace that he'd been keeping up for the previous several years. At any rate, whatever role Curly Sue did play in the end of Hughes as a major cinematic figure, it's not as bad as She's Having a Baby, nor the other screenplays he saw produced in 1991, Career Opportunities and Dutch; it's just saccharine and dopey, which is in and of itself a wonderful change from the curdled misanthropy that had been creeping into his work and found its fullest, most unpleasant expression in Dutch.
Once again taking place in Hughes's beloved Chicago - and it is, in fact, the film amongst all those he directed to spend the most time in the city limits, though it does not use the setting to such good effect as Ferris Bueller's Day Off - Curly Sue follows a pair of transient con artists, Bill Dancer (James Belushi) and Curly Sue (Alisan Porter), a salty little nine-year-old posing as Bill's daughter. Their routine, as near as we can see, is to fake car accidents: he bloodies himself a little, she shrieks and weeps and bawls, and the poor soul who thinks that the block of wood he or she just drove over was a human being can't throw enough money at them to make it all go away without getting The Law involved. Their mark in Chicago is Grey Ellison (Kelly Lynch), a merciless divorce lawyer who is introduced to us in a scene where she is lightly censured for being too aggressive and mean, even for a divorce lawyer. The con doesn't go terribly well, but when Grey manages to accidentally hit Bill for real, she agrees to put them up in her posh condo until he's back on his feet. This quickly turns into A Crusade: for Grey, she wants to get the both of them scrubbed up and ready to enter the world of people working and living in homes instead of grifting and sleeping on the street, while Bill simply wants to make sure that Sue never has to go back to the horrible life they've come from ever again, though he has no hope for himself. Grey's obnoxious fiancé Walker McCormick (John Getz) puts up a token resistance to this arrangement, but there's precious little conflict here, and for the most part we are not wondering if things will end with the three forming an ad hoc family, nor even how; we are left wondering nothing at all, in fact, which is certainly one of the film's problems, though anybody who would champ and gnash their teeth over a picture like this having a predictable story is assuredly not the target audience Hughes had in mind.
Though it's a bit hard to say what that target audience is meant to be: unlike Home Alone, which is unabashedly a kids' movie, Curly Sue exists in a netherworld where it is too innocent and stupid for any halfway discerning parent, and far too knowing and sarcastic for a child young enough to overlook how cloying most of it is. This is one if its two significant problems.
The other is that, like every Hughes film, it lives and dies on its characters, and between Belushi, Porter, and Lynch, we have about one-half of a good performance - some combination of Porter and Lynch, for it is the chief tragedy of the career of the Lesser Belushi that although he always wants to play characters who are sympathetic and fatherly, it's really hard to shake the feeling that he's about ten seconds away from trying to sell you a car. Not that being superficial and lizardy aren't more or less what the part of Bill Dancer calls for; but it also calls for a real attachment to the little girl, and a sweet soul that Grey is able to see underneath all of the grime and facile lying exterior, and these are two things that Belushi cannot provide.
As for the two women, Lynch's performance is little more than a blank wall: when she isn't speaking, she stares outward with a directionless glare that resembles someone on drugs, gazing into the infinite face of God. And this is maybe because she gets very little to chew on; whatever skill Hughes had once had with writing women (and the man behind Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club at least knew how to do that) had by this time evaporated, leaving Grey as little more than a thing that reacts: with anger, then with sympathy, then with sugary affection. But in the handful of occasions when the script requires her to explode at either Bill or Walker, she does so with conviction and fire. And for Porter... I do not like to say horrible things about child actors, even when the woman in question was born before I was. Put it this way: Curly Sue feels an awful lot like a Shirley Temple vehicle, and while we are accustomed to think of Shirley Temple as an unwatchable precious little dispensary of sweetness and light, some of her films, particularly the early ones (e.g. Little Miss Marker, her own con-artist movie, though it is not remotely like this one), she's actually quite a sharp-tongued little shit, and it's fantastic. Porter's performance is everything that Temple's is not: though she is given that same sweet and sour personality, the character is so one-note in her candied cynicism and naïveté - and I take this to be equally the fault of Hughes's writing and direction as of Porter's acting - that it's damn hard not to gag on her. She is a cutesy child; she is that worst thing of all, a pwecious child, though thankfully one without a literal speech impediment; if she did actually drop her r's, I would likely have died of the adorableness of it and would not be here to write this review.
It is entirely fair, I think, to say that one's ability to tolerate or enjoy Curly Sue is entirely a function of one's ability to stomach little kids who are so cute, whose incongruous adoption of conman argot is so charming, whose thick head of impossible tumbling curly locks is so princessy, that one can barely even recall the memory of them without puking constantly. Mine is limited; but I can still appreciate that Curly Sue tries to keep its story moving along steadily (which isn't true of Career Opportunies), and does not want to set fire to everything (which isn't true of Dutch). It is a tired and lazy film that goes for the easiest, shallowest kind of heart-warming treacle, but at least it is almost completely functional as a movie even if it is the most anonymously made of all Hughes's movies. It is a poor way to end a career, but not a ghastly one, and though I do not adore the man, I regret that Hughes couldn't end on a higher note, or one that had any of the spirit and comic energy of his best films. Curly Sue is tired and strained, and it is maybe for the best that he stopped before he sank any more in this direction, for it is certainly the case that his screenplays in the decade that followed were everything that is wrong with Curly Sue done even bigger.