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Movie Reviews : 'Uncle Buck': John Hughes' Valentine to Teenhood

August 16, 1989|CHRIS WILLMAN

In "Uncle Buck" (citywide), writer-director John Hughes has devised a plot with which to fuse his two genres of choice: the clashing-family-members comedy and the tortured-teen pic.

John Candy, the titular behemoth, is the eccentric relative from blue-collar hell that no one loves (yet); when he's called in to baby-sit his stuffed-shirt brother's three progeny for a few days, the younger tykes take a back seat while Buck establishes an adversarial, then intimate, relationship with his troubled 15-year-old niece. At heart, it's really another one of Hughes' undisguised valentines to teenhood.

The overriding philosophy of most of the Hughes canon is simple: Kids are good, grown-ups aren't. But there's a little more to it than that. Corollary No. 1: Grown-ups can be good if they act like kids--hence the spontaneous charm of Uncle Buck, who feeds beer and pretzels to the family dog and who vacuums his own girth after a spirited session of raw Frosted Flakes consumption.

Corollary No. 2: Kids can be bad if they act like adults--hence the initial villainy of his niece Tia (Jean Kelly, seemingly reprising Jennifer Grey's snotty sister character in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"), who initially attacks her keeper as an unsophisticated boob and who is trying to prove her maturity through premature sexual behavior. Uncle Buck takes up the formidable challenge of protecting her virginity, mostly through threatening her no-good boyfriend with hatchets and power drills.

Herein lies the biggest chasm between Hughes and other teen-film makers: Much as he puts impetuous adolescence on a pedestal, he tends to see sex as a threat to the young, not as a release or rite of passage. Sex is what accelerates their procession into the world of adult relationships with all the accompanying lies and rationalizations and masks. Hughes may stick Tone Loc's rap hit about engaging in the "Wild Thing" on the sound track, but he really wants his kids to just say no.

The problem with this is that we know from the outset--especially if we're familiar with Hughes' work--just how tidily all this will turn out. He can be surprisingly daring in introducing bits and pieces of tense domestic turmoil into his comedies, and this one is no exception. (Lou Lombardo, Tony Lombardo and Peck Prior did the editing, which nicely mixes tight comedic gag timing with an unusually relaxed, dramatic narrative pace.) But Hughes is usually too busy steering toward a neat, happy ending to let the intimations of nuclear family breakdowns have any real emotional sway.

Finally, "Uncle Buck" (MPAA-rated PG) has a medium-level Hughes script, only about half as good as "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," about 50 times as good as "The Great Outdoors." Before things go all awry in the final stretch, which has Buck patching things up with long-suffering gal pal Amy Madigan as well as with his family, there are some hysterical bits along the way. Not the least of these is the sight of a closed-eyed Candy scratching the family dog on the stomach and jerking his own leg in an involuntary sympathetic response, or asking his nervous sister-in-law as she leaves whether there's a plunger in the house, or 8-year-old Macaulay Culkin's deadpan Joe Friday imitation.

To get to the chuckles, most of which are well-executed, you have to wade through some of Hughes' favorite stereotypes, like the positively evil vice principal at the little girl's elementary school who calls Buck's niece "a dreamer, a silly heart." Much has been made of the autobiographical aspects of Hughes' "She's Having a Baby," but bits of this would seem even more so: Candy--who has never been more likable--is absolutely the director's stand-in as he rails against this nasty authority figure, saying, "You so much scowl at my niece or any other kid in this school and I'll come looking for you." Like Buck's nieces and nephews, the young of America have a cinematic champion and protector.

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