16 November 2011

JOHN HUGHES, SCREENWRITER: DUTCH (1991)

Sort of like Cinderella at midnight, John Hughes just sort of... stopped, at the end of the 1980s - the broken but interesting Uncle Buck and the utterly appealing trifle Christmas Vacation in 1989, and then he immediately started in with the alternately treacly and cruel Home Alone in 1990, and a sharp skid through 1991 that ended in the blow-out of his entire damn career. We can undoubtedly chalk this up to burn-out, for the man was unfathomably prolific for seven solid years, but that doesn't make the descent any less severe or ugly to watch. And even with that in mind, I was nowhere near prepared for Dutch, the second film written by Hughes and the third produced in his annus horribilis, for it is just a straight-up nasty fucking film, not intermittently dark like Uncle Buck, not mean-spirited without realising it like Home Alone, and a thousand light-years from the gooey humanism which had dominated the filmmaker's work pretty much from the first. Nasty, brutish, and long - at 107 minutes, it's hardly an epic, but it is (by only a small margin) the longest film of this retrospective of ours, and the third-longest film that Hughes was ever connected to in any capacity. It is time ill-spent.

There's an objective way to summarise the plot, and a snitty way, and I will be enough of a grown-up to lead with the former: Dutch Dooley (Ed O'Neill) is dating a single mother, Natalie (JoBeth Williams), and at a party that opens the movie, he meets her ex-husband, the slimy rich asshole Reed Standish (Christopher McDonald). Dutch instantly takes to hating Reed - you pretty much have to, unless your idea of a swell drinking buddy is Donald Trump - and takes also to hating his money and privilege. The latter of these is only a muted issue as long as he's living in his own place while Natalie still dwells, thanks to Reed's alimony checks, in an incomprehensibly huge residence in the Chicago suburbs - not even the North Shore at this point, because they literally don't have enough space for the goddamn manor home and gigantic plot of land we see on camera even in the obscenely affluent North Shore - but it's about to become a huge issue indeed. For Natalie and Reed have a son, y'see, and she really wants to spend the impending Thanksgiving holiday with him, and introducing him to her new beau; this means, in short order, that Dutch has to drive in his pridefully blue collar truck (the Dutchmobile, we'll call it) toa prestigious boarding school in Georgia to collect the boy, who is currently expecting to spend the holidays with his father, and it turns out that young Doyle Standish (12-year-old Ethan Embry, working under his birth name Ethan Randall still at this point; if I were given to outlandishly bad puns, I would at this point refer to him as "Ethan Embryo", and feel incredibly proud of myself for so doing) is even more of a status-obsessed dick than his dad; while Reed's dismissal of Dutch is at least partially due to mere sexual jealousy, young Doyle appears to actually dislike his mother for being too lower class for his pure Standish bloodline, and that means that a working class striver like Dutch is so far down the social hierarchy as to be functionally invisible.

Now, the snitty version: a grown man and an unbelievably loathsome preteen can only barely refrain from tearing each other's throats out in this jolly farce - cue the fun and good times as we get a tiny peek into what the entire Hughes filmography might have been like if Hughes was a dogmatic Marxist!

Class politics were always in a weird place slightly outside of Hughes movies, looking in through the windows: occasionally he'd just dump it right out there (Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful), but mostly it sneaks out in weird ways: the number of students at Shermer High School who are attending but not, apparently, paying much attention to Economic Theory classes is really quite extraordinary when you start noticing all the places that lectures about the fundamental conflict between capitalism and communism crop up in his movies. Hughes, of course, was a Republican in a time when Republicanism meant a robust, vocal anti-communism, but he was never tremendously ideological about it, and there is in all of his movies a very uncertain idea of the relationship between the rich and the poor: the dominant feeling in most of his movies is a noted sympathy for the poor kids, with an unmissable yearning to be one of the rich kids - that most of his movies are, in their way, lifestyle porn is one of the least-noted aspects of his cinema (easy example: Home Alone. The little ones in the audience want to be Kevin, playing around and goofing off and having fun in an empty house, their parents get to drool in jealousy over the huge, gorgeous building in which the McCallister clan resides). Nor have I even noted it very much in this retrospective, and I regret it right now. It's also worth mentioning that, to Hughes, being one of the "poor kids" meant being, at worst, lower-middle class; even the savagely underprivileged half of Pretty in Pink looks to be living several tax brackets above the poverty line.

So, all of this hesitant interest in the lives of the rich mixed with a pointed dislike of the obviously rich must have worn down on Hughes, because here in Dutch, he's just angry: Reed is a bad guy that we can all enjoy hissing at in fine melodramatic tradition, but the shocking thing is how palpably the writer absolutely detests young Doyle: the first half of the movie paints such a resolutely unsympathetic portrait of the kid (hates his mom, commits physical acts of violence because he literally does not recognise that Dutch has value as a human, things like that) that the second half, in which the filmmakers try to turn around and bring the man and boy (and largely off-stage woman) all together in a comfortable new family just can't overcome all the bad will we bear towards Doyle at this point. It doesn't help that Embry is ultimately not that charismatic of an actor, which is different than being a bad actor; at any rate, he makes for a damn convincing adolescent sociopath, and being around him is no damn fun.

Worse yet, though, is that Dutch thus becomes a presumably sympathetic class avenger - and it is unmistakably the case that when the adult screams working class bromides to counter act the child's upper-class snobbery, we are meant to be cheering on Dutch, if only to aid in Doyle's redemption - and that basically means is that a solid two-thirds of Dutch consists of scenes of Ed O'Neill looking at a 12-year-old with undisguised hatred, and possibly the desire to commit violence upon his person. O'Neill, a much better character actor than his career-defining stint on Married with Children would suggest, is uncomfortably convincing at staring at Embry with the eyes of a man who would willingly end his own life he could take the hell-spawned monster in the next sit along with him.

This is, every inch of it, incredibly unpleasant and mean-spirited: like Hughes's own Planes, Trains & Automobiles reworked by Lars von Trier on a bad day. So much comedy to sit in a car with two people who loathe each other! Dutch defeats everybody. It defeated Hughes, who went much too deep to do a quick-change heartwarming third act. It defeated director Peter Faiman and killed his directorial career after breaking out with Crocodile Dundee: he cannot make the O'Neill/Embry stand-off palatable, and he's no more successful at sticking the ending than Hughes, not even though he trowels on an ungodly amount of syrup trying to convince us that it makes sense for everything to be so sweet and rosy - in this he was assisted by Alan Silvestri, writing one of the most godawful scores I can think of, so desperately heart-plunking that it almost gives your ears Stockholm Syndrome. It defeated the cast, who simply go along gamely, maybe assuming that the Hughes magic just snaps into place in the editing room. And it defeats the viewer, who is made to stare into the howling void that happens when good-natured play turns into sourness; flailing, aimless, misanthropic sourness.

2 comments:

adampb said...

I haven't seen "Dutch", but it's interesting to me that Standish is also the surname of Molly Ringwald's rich-girl character in The Breakfast Club. Remarkably, I cannot find much Internet discussion on this topic, perhaps because few have seen "Dutch". It would seem rife for discussion of the whole class/money thing you discuss.

- Adam

Tim said...

That is an extraordinarily good point. I will immediately confess that most of what I wrote up here was basically stream-of-consciousness, and it would be a good job for me or someone else to write a more systematic, well-reasoned economic/Marxist based consideration of Hughes's filmography from the ground up; there is, unfortunately, nothing systematic about what I've done here.