Hughes #8 – Curly Sue (1991)

Awwww is the new Ewwww.

The Story

Homeless rambler Bill Dancer (Jim Belushi) loses his date after a one-night stand, but inherits her baby girl. Nine years later, Bill and the girl, Sue (Alisan Porter), blow into Chicago to run a few simple cons in search of a meal. Bill and Sue fake an automobile accident to grift cash from the driver, a lawyer named Grey (Kelly Lynch), but Grey surprises the family by taking them in. Sue’s charm warms Grey’s heart, but Grey’s asshole boyfriend reports Bill to child services to get him out of the way. Sue lands in foster care, but Grey rescues her by pushing through an emergency adoption. Bill, free of responsibility for Sue, thinks of hitting the open road, but decides to stick around, romance Grey, and remain Sue’s father.

Lawyers dig this.

The Production

To date, I haven’t found a single production note for Curly Sue anywhere in print or on the internet. It’s as if the movie simply arrived in theatres one day, fully formed and thick with the stench of sulfur, or, considering the film’s tone, the smell of kitten breath and dolphin snuggles. All I can tell you for certain is that the movie exists, John Hughes wrote and directed it, and that star Alisan Porter was a Star Search singing sensation at age five, a fact that reportedly convinced Hughes to include the scene where she belts out the national anthem.

Also, Steve Carell made his film debut here with the silent role of Tesio, the jerky waiter.

A star is born.

The Soundtrack

Hughes had an excellent ear for music, but just as he rarely wrote scripts as insipid and empty as Curly Sue, he was due for a few missteps on the soundtrack. Although Hughes deftly matched the charms of his precocious child star with loose, jazzy classics like “Yacht Club Swing” and “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”, he also succumbed to his weakness for The Beatles, allowing Ringo Starr to close the film with this tune:

“You Never Know” has the same DNA as the movie: it’s soft, limp, and forgettable. The song is a cliché hunk of bad cheese, so blandly affable that the viewer can close their eyes and imagine the film’s characters walking in step, arm-in-arm, sharing “hilarious” Chicago misadventures, which is pretty much exactly how the film actually ends. The music matches the movie—fair–but solid music choices could have helped the movie. This one nearly makes it worse.

The Misfit

Early Hughes films kept the misfit close to the hero without handing over the reigns, a rule he had abandoned by the time he filmed Curly Sue. Here, the title misfit is also the film’s comic relief, emotional core, and marketing centerpiece. Sue’s grinning mug is the sun the rest of the film’s scattered elements orbit. Is a joke not working? Cut to a Sue smile. Are Belushi and Lynch flopping as a couple? Cue Sue’s rascally wisecrack. Given another half decade, Sue might have grown up into a darling outsider—imagine The Breakfast Club’s Claire if she could hotwire a car like Bender—but instead she’s stuck in this movie, trying to keep the film afloat by spitting big girl dialogue out of her little girl mouth. The result is a terminal case of the cutes.

Cavity-Inducing Moment

Chicago foster care in the world of Curly Sue is a Dickensian nightmare where Sue is shuffled into an anonymous batch of kids and has her spirit–represented by her unruly hair–chopped off at the root. Try to keep your eyes dry when Sue scoots up to her bunk window one snowy eve to gaze longingly at the city. She’s probably choking back a rendition of “Somewhere Out There” as an act of mercy to an audience running low on hankies.

“No, that’s OK, mister. I’d get sick if I ate every day. *coff, coff*”

Overall

One depressing, if obvious, fact about countdowns is that they never start with something good. Even when working with an acknowledged cine-ninja like Stanley Kubrick, I must first admit the existence of a mind-turd like Fear and Desire before getting to the goods. Every Project has at least one or two complete wastes of time, usually either from a director’s early days, or from the end of his career when his audience and peak moment have left him. Curly Sue suffers from exactly the opposite problem. Instead of Hughes’ teens leaving him behind in the 80s, Sue is evidence that Hughes is the one who left them, choosing instead to run full speed in the other direction.

Reviewing Curly Sue is difficult because of how aggressively uninspiring it is. I imagine the process is a lot like a hardcore foodie trying to review a plain block of tofu—it can be done, but only at great risk of coma for all involved. I’ve searched the movie carefully, looking for something, anything, interesting to say. There’s nothing here even worth getting mad about.

Unless you’re a democrat.

How did this movie get made? Hughes obviously liked the project or he would have shoved it off to some journeyman to shoot. Belushi and Porter probably saw the film as a step up in their careers. Google suggests that there are still Curly Sue superfans out there, and there was even mild chatter about a franchise reboot (really?) in the wake of Hughes’ passing. Somebody, somewhere, is passionate about this movie, which strikes me as a uniquely one-sided and quixotic pursuit, because the movie doesn’t even pretend to give any passion back.

Unfortunately, the film’s failure lies squarely at the feet of Hughes who, after making his name with teen movies and proving surprisingly adept at adult comedy with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, inexplicably reversed course, abandoned his aging audience, shot right past the teens, and took another shot at the playground crowd. Seemingly inspired by Macauley Culkin’s star turn as a deadpan sadist in Hughes’ Uncle Buck and Home Alone, Hughes turned his typewriter over completely to kiddie scripts, cranking out such uncharacteristic dreck as the Home Alone sequels, Baby’s Day Out, and Dennis the Menace. If Home Alone was a diversion from his usual style, Curly Sue was the advance warning that the kid stuff was here to stay.

Here’s the problem with that: Hughes wrote for the fences. In each of his films, even the successes, Hughes wrote to go big or go home. He loved to work with familiar, broad characters struggling with universal dilemmas, which may have seemed like an easy fit for the family genre. The catch is that Hughes’ pages also bled with overwrought angst, which works fine for teen movies–teens are raw nerves to begin with, and they’re drawn to their own scent—but it’s a formula that doesn’t work with the under-10 crowd or with comedies about the homeless with Jim Belushi getting hit by a car.

Twice.

No, the angst had to go and, looking for some other emotion to cling to, Hughes turned to earnestness. Everything in Curly Sue is pitched at the extremes. For example, Grey isn’t just cold, she’s the Wicked Witch of the East Side, a woman who cruelly advocates gutting the enemy in a divorce case because, well, it’s evil, and evil got her the corner office. She’s sheltered enough that chili dogs are alien contraptions and 3D movies are hallucinatory mindfucks. And yet, despite her arch and total wrongness, her heart instantly melts and she falls for homeless Jim Belushi because, what, the kid is cute? It’s too easy.

This has never happened in the history of 3D movies.

The kid is cute, though, no doubt. Porter does what she’s asked and the character is surprisingly likable, but she deserves a better movie, as does Belushi who has seemingly used Sue as the template for every mugging, saccharine project that he’s attached his name to since. (He’s clearly capable of handling heavy material when he given a chance; just look at his small, memorable role in Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Can someone convince Tarantino or Rodriguez to cast Belushi in a reclamation project, please? If we can save Jeff Fahey, surely we can save this man.)

Actually, I think that’s my biggest problem with Curly Sue. The film should be heavier than it is, but Hughes’s script is totally uninterested in exploring the plot for anything beyond the most basic and lazy heart-tugging. Sue is precocious and pixie-like, in the face of what has to be years of persistent malnutrition. Bill Dancer really is a questionable guardian for Sue; the movie never bothers to suggest that she might actually be better off in foster care. I know that I shouldn’t be so concerned about the plot implications of a lesser John Hughes comedy, but he’s the one who chose these characters and situations and put them out there for me to consider. He knew that there was a dark side to his story, but he whitewashed over it in favor of winks and grins and belly-shaking good times. Since none of that actually arrived, forgive me if I overthink what’s left. I have to stay awake somehow.

The John Hughes Project

7. ???

8. Curly Sue

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  1. #1 by gelpi2010 on 10/23/2010 - 10:47 AM

    Mate, you bind sided me! I didn’t expect you to start the project here. I barely remember the film – it has been almost twenty years – but I do recall that it was a very inoffensive time-filler. In the early ’90s, movies with a kid in the main role were in vogue – I think the worst one I saw was Cop and ½ with Burt Reynolds – so this kind of project was very common in those days. I believe Curley Sue made money, and the reviews were not too bad either. Plenty of people liked the film.

    But it is indeed the director’s worst film (that I’ve seen, so far). Personally, I think Hughes wanted to redo Chaplin’s The Kid with modern sensibilities – needless to say it didn’t work. Anyhow, I’m sure this is the most in-depth review Curly Sue will ever get :)

    PS I didn’t realize Steve Carell and Fred Thompson were in the movie!

  2. #2 by thehollywoodprojects on 10/23/2010 - 6:41 PM

    “Anyhow, I’m sure this is the most in-depth review Curly Sue will ever get :)”

    You’re probably right. I don’t know what happened here! I lost control. I just kept writing and writing about how there was nothing to write about! But I had fun, so whatever. :)

    As for the late 90s kiddie run, I haven’t looked into this, but my guess would be that some of that was a _result_ of Hughes (mostly the runaway Home Alone) than the other way around. In any case, I think it’s really strange that if you say “teen movie”, the first thing anyone thinks of is John Hughes, yet a HUGE bulk of his late career work was kiddie stuff. It’s a weird turn that I thought I should bring up.

  3. #3 by Susan Tatum on 05/05/2011 - 3:02 AM

    This movie was wonderful- one of my family’s favorites. It’s a wonderful story and James Belushi is absolutely handsome being as slim and trim as he was in the movie. Curly Sue is adorable. the gal playing Grey is perfect. The music is beautiful. I have watched it so many times I can pretty much quote the lines word for word.

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