30 Years Ago: John Candy Brings Laughs, Sweetness and Pathos to ‘Uncle Buck’
John Hughes had many gifts as a screenwriter, but one of his greatest was his ability to find the beautiful, the surreal and the hilarious in the absolute mundane.
Perhaps none of his work conveys this more poignantly than Uncle Buck, the 1989 John Candy vehicle he wrote and directed. On paper, it must have seemed like just another late-'80s vehicle to set up a series of wacky set pieces. In execution, Hughes was able to craft a sympathetic snapshot of a certain type of man, in a very specific part of one of the world’s greatest cities, and explore how Buck’s world could change as he was confronted with ... well, with love.
If that seems a little heavy for a comedy best known for a giant pancake and a genius riff on a mean principal’s facial wart, it doesn’t feel heavy. Hughes tees up the movie’s comedic sequences as episodic vignettes; after all, the movie’s “plot” is effectively “crazy uncle watches nieces and nephews, learns the meaning of family,” so there’s not a lot of story to burn through. These episodes build upon each other, revealing the characters along the way. It leads toward a cliched set of third-act misunderstandings that resolve in a predictable way.
Watch the 'Uncle Buck' Trailer
But Uncle Buck isn’t great because of its well-worn plot; it’s great because of the warmth and detail in its characters. Buck and his girlfriend Chanice (Amy Madigan) occupy a very specific world in Chicago’s west side; whether you know that world or not, the details ring true. In that world, Buck has managed to concoct a perfectly serviceable life without any real commitment. That goes beyond his reluctance to settle down with his girlfriend; he’s a sweet, wandering soul, never staying too close to anything at all. Aside from Chanice, his “friends” are all lower-class layabouts just like him, subsisting on a steady diet of barroom peanuts and the occasional windfall from a smart bet at the track. It’s a makeshift community of people who don’t really want to be in a community, who probably think themselves too clever and carefree to be tied down by anything as stupid as a “normal life.”
Buck doesn’t find normalcy; it finds him when his brother and his wife need to leave town unexpectedly, and suddenly he’s on the hook to babysit his nieces and nephews. It’s mostly fun and games with the youngest two, Miles (a pre-Home Alone Macaulay Culkin) and Maizy (Gaby Hoffman). His oldest niece Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly) is another story entirely — she takes advantage of her parents’ absence to enact a miniaturized teenage rebellion directed squarely at her uncle.
Buck manages to handle that rebellion, and he makes it look easy. Maybe it’s because he recognizes more than a little of himself in Tia’s adolescent detachment. They’re both running the same con: Keep the world at arm’s length, never get hurt. Tia’s doing it to establish her independence; Buck has been independent for decades, and while he doesn’t immediately realize it, he’s facing down his own demons even as he effortlessly tackles Tia’s outbursts.
If you believe the trivia section on IMDB, every actor from Tom Cruise to Danny DeVito was considered to play Uncle Buck. Watching the film, it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone but Candy in this role. Plenty of comedic stars in the late '80s could have wrung laughs out of this script; none of them could have imbued Buck with the instant sweetness and pathos Candy brings to the table. You don’t know Buck when the movie starts, but you realize quickly you know Buck, because he’s recognizable as the same kind of guy you joke with at the bowling alley, or the dude who sells you weed. World-wise, bighearted, disconnected by choice from other people.
Millions of teenagers over the decades have recognized themselves in the teen comedies Hughes is most famous for — The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles. Starting with Mr. Mom in 1983, Hughes uncovered an equally rich thread crafting adult characters that were just as relatable. In movies like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, She’s Having a Baby and Uncle Buck, he brought us grown-up characters that weren’t grown up yet at all. They are deeply compelling because we see ourselves in them.
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