03 November 2011

JOHN HUGHES, SCREENWRITER: THE GREAT OUTDOORS (1988)

Three John Hughes productions were being put together roughly at the same time - though, of course, he didn't direct all three, that would have been insane - and were released in a scant eight month period, from November, 1987, through June, 1988. The first of these was Planes, Trains & Automobiles, a sweet-and-sarcastic travel farce, the second was the strident domestic dramedy She's Having a Baby, and the final one, created at some distance past the other two (though close enough that its lead actors could cameo, in character, in SHAB) and the only one not directed by Hughes himself, was The Great Outdoors, which feels in the context of a forward-moving retrospective like ours something in the mold of PT&A or Vacation with the acerbic edges sanded off, but with the benefit of hindsight, it feels more like the transition into what would prove to be the last stage of Hughes's career: broad, slapsticky family comedies. With the exception that The Great Outdoors is pretty good, whereas e.g. Baby's Day Out is not. After this movie, HughesCo (not its actual name) would take the longest break in its short existence, and John Hughes himself never came anywhere close to the speed of his output in the five-year span from 1983 to 1988. But that is a tale for the future.

The Great Outdoors is the second film in what we could perhaps call the John Candy Trilogy, the three films wherein Hughes collaborated with the second great muse of his career after Molly Ringwald.* If I am correct in observing that the triad of PT&A, SHAB and The Great Outdoors represent a sea change in Hughes storytelling language, it is largely Candy whose persona informs the new stage in Hughes's career: where Ringwald was the focal point of his movies about likable but damned prickly teenage outcasts, his films with Candy are far gentler and more humanist, sweet-hearted movies about decent guys fumbling through life (if there is one singular difference between Vacation and PT&A, I hold it to be that, the substitution of generosity for savage mockery - the Hughes who wrote Vacation would never have granted an obnoxious fat moron such a sentimental ending as the Hughes directed PT&A did).

Candy is the main character, and the protagonist, and yet first billing goes to Dan Aykroyd, and this tells us a little bit about the kind of movie that The Great Outdoors is, and a good deal about the star system in 1988. Regardless, what the film shall be is exactly what you might have been able to predict in 1988 armed only with that knowledge, and maybe the film's poster: Candy is a well-intentioned goof, Aykroyd is a slick verbal tap-dancer who abuses Candy with bullying sarcasm. Namely, it's summer vacation time, and Chet Ripley (Candy) has taken his family - wife Connie (Stephanie Faracy, wonderfully appealing - God knows why her career went nowhere, she's delightful here), teenager Buck (Chris Young), and tremendously unimportant Ben (Ian Giatti) - to his childhood camping paradise up in the Wisconsin woods (played by Bass Lake, just outside of Yosemite National Park, and looking far more like the upper Midwest than the Sierra Nevada ought to be capable of), where he and Connie honeymooned so long ago. The Ripley's are prepped for a week of low-key, old-fashioned fun, when Chet's rich asshole cousin Roman Craig (Akyroyd) arrives with his family, Kate (Annette Bening, her icy status-obsessed Queen Bitch persona already formed in this, her excellent film debut) and their creepy twin daughters (Hilary and Rebecca Gordon). After rudely inserting himself into the Ripley cabin, Roman announces that no family of his will be forced to endure such prosaic, poor-person entertainments as rowing boats, and he proceeds to turn Chet's dream vacation into a hell of yuppie tourist delights.

The soft-spoken but ever-present rumbling of class conflict that runs throughout the whole movie - Chicagoan Chet sniffily points out at one moment late in the film that Roman lives in Oak Park, a dead giveaway for those who share Hughes's love of the region that the Craigs are yuppie dick assholes - is all we need to figure out that this was one of the films Hughes gave to his protégé Howard Deutch to direct; it would in fact be their last collaboration before Deutch concluded that he would be better off shepherding unwanted sequels like Grumpier Old Men and The Whole Ten Yards into the world. Why in the hell he got all the Hughes screenplays with the heaviest stress on class-consciousness - or, even worse, why the future director of the Dane Cook vehicle My Best Friend's Girl saw fit to drag the class issues out of Hughes's screenplays - I cannot begin to guess, but there it is: The Great Outdoors is, in a tremendously elliptical and largely non-confrontational way, about a Master of the Universe type proving himself an ass in front of a regular, working-class, decent all-American guy.

I want to stress that it's non-confrontational; The Great Outdoors is a pridefully and purposefully friendly, agreeable comedy for the whole family to watch together (assuming the family doesn't mind "shit". God, how much better life was when family-friendly movies could have the word "shit" in them, and we weren't so fucking concerned with santising every inch of personality out of children's entertainment! PG movies from the '80s have much more of a potty mouth than you maybe recall). Not that it's a "family film", as such - those were just around the corner for Hughes, and they are terrible - but that it has only a scant handful of marginally "sexy" moments, and a whole lot of easy jokes that don't require much sophistication to laugh at them, though they are not therefore unworthy of laughter.

We're squarely back in the same territory of Planes, Trains & Automobiles: slapstick farce raised to a cartoonishly implausible level, with most of the humor relying on the comic chemistry of its two stars. Sadly, Candy and Aykroyd don't click quite as beautifully as Candy did with Steve Martin, but then, that was one of the great duos of the entire decade - and that being arguably the all-time great decade for buddy comedies in film. Partially, it is because Roman is too genuinely mean, and Chet far more likable than Candy's Del Griffith in the earlier movie: there are a few moments where the film crosses the line from silly to nasty, and the sugary tone of the whole can't make room for any nastiness the way that the anarchism of PT&A did.

Still, it's territory where Hughes is eminently comfortable, and if Deutch isn't quite the comedy director as his producer, The Great Outdoors is still damn charming when it works, when it is based primarily in the interplay between characters or in the writer's unabashed nostalgia for a kind of cozy Americana that certainly didn't exist in 1988, if it ever did. It doesn't work when it dabble in full-on absurdity, especially the interjection of two raccoons speaking in wacky subtitles, function more or less as a chorus; or in the antic action setpiece that makes up most of the film's last half-hour, beginning with the incredibly clichéd turn Roman's character takes and following into a really tedious chase involving a bear, a flooding mine, a shotgun lamp, and gags that would have been tossed out of a Hanna-Barbera story meeting for being too broad.

It works way more than it doesn't work, though, and Candy's first proper chance to really step up and take the lead paid off hugely: there is a basic decency and dignity that he maintains for himself that most of the - there's no nice way to say this - fat comedians in history don't even bother striving for, and his presence in the film grounds it and gives it a yearning, human heart. That's not the same as being an ageless classic, nor a comic masterpiece, but it's enough to mean that The Great Outdoors gets to be a nice movie that never once feels like it's condescending to its characters or, more importantly, its audience. It's a kind of simple, appealing mainstream movie that didn't appear much after the end of the '80s, and a really good example of it like this is good thing to keep around for a rainy night.

2 comments:

Zev Valancy said...

A guy from Northbrook calling Oak Park the center of yuppie dick assholery? I call bullshit, John Hughes.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I love this movie. Ever since I was a kid, I love this movie. I can't justify the love for it today beyond the usual nostalgia type stuff, but I will say that whenever I come across the movie on cable, I have to watch it. Not only do I stop for it, but I notice about 30 minutes into my viewing that the film still goes down incredibly smooth.

It's interesting when comparing this to Hughes' other ventures with Candy because here I always found a lot of the stuff that happened to Candy in this movie was just mean-spirited because it was always Akroyd's character doing something to Candy's character rather than the two experiencing things together (until the bear scene, that is).

I've always viewed The Great Outdoors as one of the staples of '80s comedies. I think when I watch it now I realize that it doesn't really work as a well oiled machine of comedy or anything, but my memories are so strong of it from when I was a kid (I rented it every year at a little resort video store when my family and I would go on Summer vacation) that I can't help but always think about it fondly.

Anyway, I'll always remember this movie fondly. I'll still watch it anytime I see that it's on TV. I love it almost as much as I love Uncle Buck and Planes. I always liked the Hughes/Candy collaborations much more than his films about teenagers -- because, like you, I never felt that much connection to his takes on adolescence.

I've really been enjoying this series, Tim.