When the world gives you a snow shovel, make giant pancakes.
An emergency leaves a suburban family in need of a sitter for their three children, but all they can find on short notice is Uncle Buck (John Candy), a city slob who funds his pizza-chic lifestyle with horse track winnings. Once in charge, Buck quickly wins over the younger kids, but completely fails to connect with teenage Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly) and her raging angst. Tia undermines Buck and lies about him to her parents, but when that fails to get rid of him, she runs away with a loser named Bug (Jay Underwood). Buck scours the town for Tia and brings her back home safely, terrorizing Bug (a would-be date rapist) as a bonus. Niece and uncle make up just as the parents return home and reunite the family, now including Buck.
Uncle Buck was the first of a three picture deal between John Hughes and Universal Studios (although there’s some confusion and I’m not sure which other two films, if any, came out of deal), and was originally scheduled to take the Hughes industry into the greater St. Louis area, but an unseasonably warm winter forced a move right back into Hughes’ comfort zone of Chicago, Illinois. Scrambling for sets on short notice, Hughes annexed a high-school gymnasium, where he built the film’s interior sets (including the family’s two-story home).
Released in the summer of 1989, Uncle Buck proved to be a sizable hit for Hughes and lived atop the box office for weeks, eventually grossing a fat $67 million. CBS nabbed the rights for an Uncle Buck TV show the following year, starring comedian Kevin Meaney as Buck. The show featured the film’s characters, with one major change: they killed off the parents.
The show bombed.
Young MC! Young MC!
Chances are you’ve now heard his name twice more today than you have in the last 20 years, but Uncle Buck arrived in theatres while the erstwhile Marvin Young was still ascending on the arguable strength of hits like “Bust a Move,” which is one of two Young MC tracks featured on the Uncle Buck soundtrack. Hughes leveraged those tunes (and Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing,” which appeared in every movie made in the 80s) to emphasize the culture war between city slicker Buck and the suburban jungle via clashing musical cues, resulting in a soundtrack that alternates pop hits from pseudo-rappers with a string of 50s blues and R&B tracks like “Mr. Sandman,” “Juke Box Baby,” and “Tweedlee Dee”?
Strangely, Hughes’ sneaky game of dueling banjos subverts expectations. The modern songs arrive in reference to Tia or to some kind of suburban annoyance, which seems reasonable, but that leaves the lighter, bluesy notes with the supposedly crass and uncouth Buck, which gives the audience a subtle insight into the character, a flip from his sloppy demeanor.
It’s easy to roll our eyes at Macauley Culkin’s rise to fame in the early 90s, but what other child still in the target demographic for Froot Loops can steal scenes from John Candy?
With two adorable moppets bouncing around, the safe bet would be on one of them having a tummy-wummy ache or some such thing to ramp up the cute factor, but the kids mostly play it straight. Instead, it’s the third act reconciliation of Tia and Buck that really stretches credibility. OK, yes, Tia fended off attempted rape and, yes, that’s exactly what Buck warned her would happen, but would she really lose the chip on her shoulder because Buck made her an accessory to kidnapping?
Tia handled Bug just fine, and was on her way back on her own power when Buck interfered, as he had done repeatedly throughout the film. It enraged her then; now she likes it. I suspect Tia’s change of heart is motivated by the film’s running time. If Tia doesn’t forgive Buck, this movie becomes a miniseries.
Uncle Buck provides an opportunity to discuss—for the first time on this Project, but not the last—a character familiar to John Hughes films that I call the Hughesian Harpy Mom. The teenagers scattered about Shermer, Illinois, invariably suffer from clueless, uninterested, or otherwise absent parents, but an unfortunate few are stuck with mothers only the Grimm Brothers could love. (It’s never the father, either. An enraged father is not as funny.) This Harpy Mom is Cindy (Elaine Bromka), but she earns the title not for the way she treats her children—especially not Tia, whose attitude is so poisonous that even doctors might be tempted to prescribe a healthy dose of being tied to the stake—but in how she treats her brother-in-law, Buck.
Buck should be the misfit of this movie. The film’s structure and marketing even suggests it. Buck is the fish, Chicago is the water, and the suburbs are out of it. This is supposed to be a movie about how Buck doesn’t belong at first, but how he eventually learns to bring a little city to the suburbs while the children add a little suburb to the city. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, Buck pretty much has his shit figured out from the start. In his first scene, Buck agrees to take a new job at his girlfriend’s shop, and all indications are that he intends to follow through. So, Buck’s central problem (that he’s happily unemployed) resolves itself, but a family emergency changes his plans, which seems like a perfectly natural, even sympathetic development.
And yet Cindy, our Hughesian Harpy Mom, cringes and holds back a dry heave when she hears Buck’s name. Why? Well, he’s unemployed and kind of a slob. He’s different. But Buck is family and, what’s more, he steps up when needed without complaint, and he does a fine job. The other teens in Shermer only wish they had a guardian like him.
What we have here, then, is one of the only truly warm and effective “parents” in the John Hughes canon. Curly Sue’s adoptive father has her running grifts on the street, the nerds from Weird Science exist in a wonderland where there are no parents, and it doesn’t get any better anywhere else in Shermer. Buck stands up to the school system, risks jail in the defense of Tia’s vagina, and creates the motherfucker of all birthday breakfasts, all while facing scrutiny from the McMansion elite because some kind of “other” has arrived in their packaged American Dream. Buck ain’t the problem, ladies. It’s you.
I think we can all agree that Uncle Buck isn’t a masterpiece—despite its warmer qualities, there’s not much of a story here—but it might be John Candy’s greatest movie role. Although adept at playing man/dogs and annoying neighbors, Candy rarely had roles with the depth and nuance his decades of theatre and TV work trained him for. Plenty of new comedy talent has appeared in the last 16 years, but none have filled the void he left. Uncle Buck is no classic, but John Candy was, and his stellar work in a medicore movie is one reason we still miss him today.
The John Hughes Project
6. Uncle Buck
8. Curly Sue