Hughes #5 – She’s Having a Baby (1988)

….eventually. In the last 20 minutes. Trust me.

The Story

Aspiring writer Jake Briggs (Kevin Bacon) marries his high-school sweetheart, Kristy (Elizabeth McGovern), despite the objections of his ice-cold feet. Jake would rather party and run free, but he loves Kristy, and they soon settle into a suburban routine. Jake works in advertising and mows the lawn like a good suburbanite, but soon feels the grind, especially after Kristy decides to have a baby and forces Jake through fertility procedures to make it happen. She finally conceives, but a near-death experience at the birth brings Jake face-to-face with his priorities. When the baby comes home, he’s ready to embrace his life. In the film’s final moments, Jake reads a finished manuscript to Kristy. The title?

Or did this movie just BLOW YOUR MIND?

The Production

She’s Having a Baby filmed in the greater Illinois area, including Skokie, Chicago, and frequent Shermer stand-in, Northbrook, throughout the winter of 1986. Photography bumped very close up against shooting for Hughes’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which is why that film contains several references to Baby, despite hitting theatres a year earlier. She’s Having a Baby also served as kind of a “sunrise, sunset” of Hollywood royalty. It was the final film for actress Cathryn Damon (Soap’s Mary Campbell), and the first major film role for then-unknown TV actor Alec Baldwin.

The Soundtrack

This was a passion project for Hughes, and he did some of his best work yet compiling the soundtrack. Hughes plugged in the usual 50s/60s R&B tunes (“Chain Gang”), and the occasional almost-too-sweet tracks (“Apron Strings”), and then he used the rest of the space to program awesomeness from Gene Loves Jezebel, Love and Rockets, and Boston (“More Than a Feeling.”) The film also has a forgettable title track, easily overshadowed by Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work”, the film’s unofficial signature song.

In case you don’t know, that stuff pouring out of your eyes is emotion juice.

The Misfit

Alec Baldwin plays Davis, the little devil on the couple’s collective shoulder. He appears in the opening scene to give Jake the standard bro-offer of bailing on the wedding to escape to Mexico or some such place, commandeer all booze in sight, and sample a buffet of willing vaginas, quite possibly simultaneously. It’s that kind of scene. Later, Davis (remember, Jake’s best friend) hits town for a combo family funeral/hit on Jake’s wife party (in front of a wall-size Lolita poster, no less.) Baldwin’s first official sleazeball character.

Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock looks like he’s wearing this Alec Baldwin as a suit.

Cavity-Inducing Moment

Watch that “This Woman’s Work” montage again, but this time on mute. Effective? Yes, but also over-the-top, overbearing, and definitely not approved by dentists.

Overall

90s slacker messiah Kevin Smith has named John Hughes as one of his very favorite directors, and She’s Having a Baby as his favorite Hughes film. It’s easy to see why. “Basically my stuff is just John Hughes films with four-letter words,” Smith has said, and he’s not far off. Both Hughes and Smith conquered Hollywood with the support of young, rabid fanbases who heard their own voice in the directors’ scripts and saw their own lives in the blue-collar vistas (central Illinois for Hughes; New Jersey for Smith). Both Smith and Hughes are known for the quality of their writing rather than their camera skills, and dick jokes aside, Smith’s work portrays the same sentimental ideals as Hughes: the kids are all right, and it’s their time.

I just realized how much this looks like the club from The Social Network.

Of course She’s Having a Baby is Smith’s favorite. After all, he remade it in the mid-2000s—spiritually, at least—with his unjustly vilified Ben Affleck vehicle, Jersey Girl. Smith had sought to evolve and bring more weight to his work but, just like Baby before it, the effort flopped. These failures had to cut deep for both directors, as these films are the most personal of their careers. Jersey Girl was inspired by Smith’s relationship with his daughter, although the script is entirely fictional. She’s Having a Baby, on the other hand, borders closely on autobiography.

The film’s protagonist, Jake Briggs, marries his high school sweetheart, moves to the southwest, drops out of college, and returns to Chicago for an advertising job while trying to break in as a writer, all of which plagiarizes Hughes’ early life. Writing himself directly into his screenplay, Hughes shed a layer between filmmaker and audience. Love it or hate it, the film is all Hughes.

Shermer, Illinois. Minority free since 1832.

Hughes’ deep connection to the story is likely the inspiration for one of his best directorial efforts, a display of technique that went almost wholly wasted in a film almost nobody saw. Hughes and cinematographer Don Peterman designed a world that reveals Jake’s state of mind in a clear, visual language. Unlike the traditional Shermer—oh so Anytown, USA—the setting of She’s Having a Baby is a fantasy land, a prison for Jake’s lamented youth that reflects his own fear of stagnation. When Jake receives redemption (realizing that his “prison” is exactly where he wants to be), his reward is an open floodgate of visitors: the film’s celebrated finale includes dozens of celebrities and bystanders offering names for the new Briggs baby.

The stretch and pop of Hughes dusty directorial muscle is unfortunately accompanied by one of his rare script misfires. While the story has its highlights—the fantasy sequences suggest the film as some kind of lost Ferris Bueller sequel, except one in which Ferris is forced into sexual slavery whenever Sloan ovulates—the emotional weight of the near-death finale depends on two things: we have to care about the couple and, more importantly, we have to like Jake. Neither is really possible. Jake is thoroughly unlikable, spending the bulk of the film either whining or thinking about sleeping around, and the film’s depiction of marriage is both terribly unhappy and lousy with clichés (aren’t the suburbs weird?!) My wife and I, newlyweds, found the film tough to watch at times because its hatchet job on the institution is so damn convincing.

Is this our hell?

Another thought: is it possible that this film helped to end Hughes’ career? I had the opportunity once to see Kevin Smith speak in Vancouver, Canada.  The event was epic—he literally outlasted the crowd and took questions all night until there were no more—and full of buzzworthy highlights (such as admitting he had considered fistfighting Tim Olyphant during the filming of Catch and Release), but his comments about Jersey Girl stuck with me the most. He was willing, even eager, to attack his film, stomping its throat before the crowd had a chance to do it for him. When asked, he confessed that he had put up an emotional shield. To paraphrase, “My movie was rejected, and so I reject my movie.”

I’ve often wondered if the commercial and critical failure of She’s Having a Baby had a similar effect on Hughes. He never again wrote or directed a movie as personal and as ambitious, wrapping up his auteur career with safe John Candy comedies and cute stories about kids. The reason for Hughes’ Hollywood exile is one of his most enduring mysteries, with theories ranging from general burnout to grief at Candy’s early death, but is it possible he took exception with the rough treatment and cold reception for a movie he so clearly had an emotional stake in? After years of writing about wounded souls, did he finally risk his own heart on the chopping block? Pure speculation, of course, but then that’s all we have left when it comes to Hughes. He put so much of himself into this script, but it wasn’t enough. Maybe that hurt him most of all.

The John Hughes Project

5. She’s Having a Baby

6. Uncle Buck

7. Weird Science

8. Curly Sue

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  1. #1 by JoeytheMadScientist on 11/21/2010 - 12:14 PM

    never watched this one before…but now i want to.

  2. #2 by thehollywoodprojects on 11/21/2010 - 2:15 PM

    Awesome, sir, then I’ve done my job.

  3. #3 by Rae on 11/23/2010 - 10:40 PM

    Very touching! Seeing that montage again almost got the tears rolling. The film took such a turn at that point. The fantasies and musical numbers are such great foils to that montage. Opposites, but they impact each other just by being in the film in such opposing ways. I’m ranting, but it was fantastic seeing your assessment of this one. Thanks, babe!

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