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'PTA' Transports John Hughes Beyond His Teen Comedy Image

December 15, 1987|JACK MATHEWS

"I've been reading you for a long time," film director John Hughes says, as he settles back on one of the leather chairs in his office at Paramount Pictures.

"And I've been watching your movies for a long time," his guest says.

Pause. Nothing further from Hughes on what he thinks about what he's read. Nothing further from his guest on what he thinks about what he's seen.

"Hmmm," the guest thinks to himself. "He remembers everything. He knows how much I hated 'Sixteen Candles' and 'Weird Science.' He knows I thought 'Breakfast Club' and 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' pandered to adolescents and stunted adults. He remembers that I said his scripts for 'Mr. Mom' and 'National Lampoon's Vacation' led to two of the century's worst comedies. Now that he's made a movie I like--'Planes, Trains and Automobiles'--how do I ease into the subject of his, uh, maturation?"

"You've sure gotten some good reviews on 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles,' " the guest says. "Most of the ones I've read say you've finally made a movie for adults."

Hughes, who is 37 and appears to be pushing 18, smiles and shakes his head.

"At least half of the reviews for 'PTA' start out with, 'Well . . . he grew up!,' " Hughes says, in a mellifluous voice guaranteed to land him a job as an FM jazz show host if his film career ever sputters. "About 10% of the reviews say, 'He's finally found something more important than proms.' "

Hughes says he's happy to read nice things about his movie, and it won't bother him to see the labels Kiddiemeister, Wizard of Teens and Youth Guru fade. But "Planes, Trains and Automobiles"--or "PTA," as he calls it--is not a signal that he's swearing off subjects dear primarily to the hearts of teen-agers.

"I maintain that when you're 17 and the prom is breathing down your neck, it's the worst thing in your life," Hughes says. "You don't care about arms control, you care only about your feelings. That's really what (his past movies) were about."

"PTA," his R-rated comedy about two mismatched companions on a stormy run from New York to Chicago during Thanksgiving weekend, was not a conscious effort to prove anything, either, he says.

"If I had said, 'OK, I have to go make a movie that changes my image,' then I'm not making a movie, I'm making an image change."

Intentional or not, "PTA" has changed Hughes' image overnight.

There was never much question about the former creative ad man's ability to direct. Even in "Sixteen Candles," the hormone-powered comedy that jump-started his directing career, Hughes demonstrated sure skills at setting up and delivering gags--at least those aimed at the laugh zone of his target audience.

In the three years since, he has been one of the hottest and busiest hyphenates (writer-director-producer) in Hollywood. The laughs in his films have come at the disproportionate expense of caricatured adults, convincing many of us that we were being goosed rather than needled. But compared to the other teen-age software in the market--the "Porkys," "Police Academys" and "Rockys"--John Hughes was producing high-brow masterpieces.

Until "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" the question remained: Could someone who would stoop to milking laughs from a Chinese exchange student named Long Duc Dong ("SixteenCandles") rise to the occasion of entertaining adults as well? Does Hughes have a prayer of some day having his name mentioned in the same breath with those--Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Capra--he reveres?

If film historians ever look back on Hughes the way he might like them to, his reputation will start with "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," a screwball comedy that would be a mature piece of film making for the most experienced hand.

It is far closer in spirit and execution to the work of Sturges--specifically, of Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels"--than to the sophomoric "National Lampoon's Vacation" that Hughes once claimed to have written in something like eight days. (Hughes' guest remembers writing that after seeing "Vacation," he wondered why the script had taken so long.)

Some reviews have chided Hughes for continuing to work laughs from easy targets--the assortment of country bumpkins and addled clerks that the two stars encounter along the way--but they are traditional comic foils and it seems doubtful that without Hughes' previous patterns, the same criticisms would have been made.

One thing is certain. The movie is a big success, having grossed $22.2 million during its first three weeks in release, and it may eventually surpass last year's "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" on his hit list.

You don't think of whiz kids as people in their late 30s, but in Hollywood, it's not your age that counts as much as the age of those you satisfy, and the speed with which you do it.

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