Archive for category comedy
Penn & Teller perform on TV to roaring applause, and afterward, Penn jokes that it might be fun to have a murderous stalker. Teller obliges by slashing his throat; joke over. After the show, bizarre events convince Penn that someone is taking his challenge seriously (little things like someone shooting at him.) Penn goes into hiding, as soon as he can take a break from debunking a psychic surgeon and waging a prank war with Teller. But, as the stalker moves in for the final kill, Teller pulls a gun and shoots him, actually killing Penn, who (we learn) staged the entire plot as a prank. Teller kills himself to complete the title, and the scene is so tragic that the next person to enter joins him. And then the next person. And the next person. And the next…
Penn & Teller Get Killed was an unwanted child, tossed around between studios like a lit stick of dynamite, and terminally under-released. The script, written by the duo, is such an odd creature that it’s a minor (atheist) miracle it found financing as a studio picture. The result is a movie by and about two minor-celebrity magicians, directed by a man who hadn’t had a hit in two decades, and with a pitch black ending that defies franchising. (“You can imagine the sequel thing is kind of a bitch,” quips Penn). Fans could only see P&TGK on worn VHS copies until last year, when Warner Brothers finally added the film to its Archive collection, a vanity press for unloved movies. If you see the film, soak it up, because you’ll never see anything like it again.
Penn & Teller Get Killed is lock-step with the rest of the magician duo’s career, primarily devoted to blurring the lines between the real world and the trick, while puncturing clichés and superstitions. P&TGK was designed to sit film conventions on their ear: the ending is in the title, the main characters can actually die, etc. The film is an attempt to deconstruct film.
If you’ve read this far and don’t want more details on the full ending, stop now, because the best scene, the source of the title, and probably the film’s entire reason to exist is the hilariously bleak finale. Possibly influenced by Monty Python’s “funniest joke in the world,” the film ends with Teller accidentally killing Penn before turning the gun on himself. That’s a fairly down ending as these things go, but the duo flips the script by drawing an exhaustive and escalating number of characters into the room for a variety of reasons, all of whom are either so distraught or shocked that they off themselves as well, which leads to the next group, and so on until the credits and, presumably, the end of the world. (This clip ends early; trust me, it goes on.)
The clear theme running throughout Penn & Teller Get Killed is “don’t fall for bullshit,” a message that’s defined the bulk of the duo’s career. Throughout their partnership, Penn & Teller have left the ruins of hack magicians in their wake by exposing their tricks and pretensions; they’ve debunked pseudoscience, political conspiracies, and faith (Penn often signs autographs with “There is no God.”); they’ve created video games that skewer the form, including one game, Desert Bus, apparently on this earth only to occupy the gullible until they starve to death or otherwise go away. Penn & Teller are also professed libertarians, a philosophy that, although not without its faults, has about as little tolerance for bullshit as any in American politics (which explains why the party can’t get any traction in the mainstream. Americans like their politicians shoveling with both hands.)
As a medium to bring Penn & Teller’s attitude to the screen—an attitude less “kick-ass” than “kick-in-the-ass”—the film should fit right in. It doesn’t. In fact, it fails on almost every conceivable level, and while some of that can be blamed on Arthur Penn, most of it falls squarely on Penn & Teller themselves.
We can, I believe, pencil magicians onto the list of professions that should not be actors, right under rap stars, pop singers, and politicians. Sure, it’s all performance, but a film set is in a different galaxy from the stage. There’s no audience to work with, no energy to build. There is only waiting, action, and more waiting. The stage Penn & Teller are masters at working an audience, but Penn and Teller look lost on the screen, drifting between barely-connected episodes like buoys. There’s no life in the movie, no real world for the pair to inhabit. There’s only the tricks and a planet full of rubes. This setup works for the finale—it’s hard to feel bad for a world where everyone sucks—but it works against the movie everywhere else, like when the pair plays hero to prevent an ailing mark from blowing his money on a faith healer.
Psychic surgery was a major thing in the late 80s, having experienced a flash of gawking popularity from shaky news reports and that wouldn’t survive the first 10 Fark comments today. The technique—which involves the surgeon ripping “tumors” from the body without pain or incisions—was quickly sussed by the magician community as a sleight-of-hand trick, and few were as outspoken as Penn & Teller when calling it out. They take great pains in P&TGK to debunk the procedure, tying their anti-mumbo-jumbo rants directly into the plot. It’s a weird vendetta. Maybe this particular trick irked them because its purpose was to grift, not entertain. Maybe they just thought it was a weak trick. Maybe their crusade grew from conscience, as trusting in a faith healer to cure your cancer can cost you a whole lot more than money.
The subplot sums up another message in P&TG: ignorance is death. Penn & Teller have spent their careers tweaking the gullible, but when they fall for their own pranks, it leads to their doom. There’s a bit of schadenfreude to seeing them taste their own medicine. As the movie’s tagline says: What more do you want?
I want a better movie, or at least one that lives up to the script’s ambition. Arthur Penn’s late years contained a lot of paycheck jobs that, as even he admits, didn’t hold much interest for him. I don’t know if that’s the case for P&TGK, but it seems clear that his style didn’t fit the material. Penn once said that directing was looking for “controlled accidents.” He liked to let his actors loose to experiment. That may work with Brando or Beatty, but it shouldn’t have been this movie. It shouldn’t have been these actors. This script can’t support all that liberty.
I can’t say Penn & Teller Get Killed is a bait and switch, but that’s as far as its merits go. It’s an anti-movie, but not in the way that its stars might have hoped. There’s more to being subversive than bucking cliché. The script and its stars were full of good intentions, but even a well-meaning bull can still leave a pile of. . . missed opportunities.
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
The Cubs game makes sense (they always played during the day in the 80s), but what the hell was the parade for!?
Ferris (Matthew Broderick) decides to take a sick day from school because fuck school. He takes his friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) on a trip to Chicago where they take in a Cubs game, check out a museum, and incite mass singing and dancing at a parade, all while ducking the sinister Dean Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) and Ferris’s own jealous sister (Jennifer Grey). Although the day ends with the neurotic Cameron ready to face up to his unseen father for his actions, Ferris gets home just in time to avoid any consequences at all.
I’ve written about John Hughes’s superhuman writing ability in the past, but this is a joke, right? In March of 1985, just as The Breakfast Club success had anointed Hughes as the God King of the Teenagers, the director took a call from his agent reminding him that the writer’s guild would soon strike and advising him to get any dangling script ideas down on paper before he had to legally stop working. Hughes thought up an idea on the spot, pitched it to Paramount the next day, received the green light, and then churned out an entire feature screenplay before the strike. From idea to script. In. One. Week. So of course, Hughes moved right into filming soon after the strike ended, and the result was a mega-hit. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off grossed roughly $70 million 1986 dollars on a $6 million budget, and Hughes proved that, at least during the mid-1980s, he could almost literally spin gold from the air if given a week to do so.
John Hughes carefully chose the perfect tracks for each of his films, but that alone doesn’t prove he was a music nerd. This does: no official soundtrack was released for the film because Hughes didn’t feel the songs fit together well enough to make an album anyone would want. Yes, he refused to release songs from his own film because he didn’t want to give the world yet another obligatory soundtrack album. He did, however, release a vinyl for fans on the Ferris mailing list. The record featured only two tracks—“I’m Afraid” by Blue Room and the Flowerpot Men’s “Beat City”— and copies of the vinyl and extremely rare and collectible today.
Quick, who’s the protagonist in Bueller? Ferris right? He talks to the audience, his name is in the title, and it is indeed his day off. But Cameron is the character who learns and changes the most over the course of the story, actions usually reserved for the story’s hero. Ferris is still Ferris at the end, but Cameron is about to stand up and take control of his life. So Ferris Bueller’s Day Off actually revolves around a dual protagonist, each character acting as the other’s central misfit. Suddenly it all makes sense. Poor Sloane was the third wheel, not Cameron.
Oh, and speaking of Cameron’s big moment, am I the only one that thinks he was probably beaten to death with a golf club about 10 minutes after the credits? No way this goes well for him. At the least, he’ll find himself bunking with Ted “Theodore” Logan at military school.
I believe Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the best movie John Hughes ever directed, but writing about it has been no rodeo. There’s not much I can say that doesn’t feel over said. After all, the internet is thick with Ferris content, with some writers gutting it—CHUD’s Andre Dellamorte calls the film “evil” because it’s about a rich, white kid acting entitled, while Cinematical’s Jacob Hall wrote an article just this week in which he called Ferris a “smug, self-satisfied, manipulative little sh*t”—while others gush blindly over the film in a kind of nostalgia bukkake.
Nostalgia sucks, by the way (as does bukkake). Nostalgia has done more harm to movies in the last decade than <insert hack director’s name for easy laugh>, and so I committed to a Ferris Bueller reexamination, to weed out any sneaky influence the 80s might have on my thinking. Or, at least, I tried, but I’m not sure such a thing is possible. Ferris Bueller is intimately tied into my childhood. Like so many former 80s adolescents (80lescents?), I see myself when I see the film.
Many writers choose to align with Cameron, which makes sense. We tend to be mopey types, and uber-writer Hughes himself pointed to Cameron as the Shermer character he most resembled. But me? I was Ferris. Now, I wasn’t remotely as cool or as popular as Ferris, not on your life. But I certainly saw myself as Ferris did. I thought I was the only one who could see that the walls of my high school were built on bullshit. I felt as if I were above the whole process: the classes, the teachers, all of it. I broke every rule that didn’t endanger my own life, I exasperated authority figures, and I nearly flunked school out of spite. It was my way of gaining control, and I spent a lot of time in detention or in long, boring talks with my parents to get it (Again, not Ferris, so I didn’t get away with jack crap.) To put it mildly: I was a smug, self-satisfied, manipulative little shit. Thanks to Jacob Hall for summing it up.
But you know what I wasn’t? Rich. I wasn’t poor, either, or entitled or anything else. I was just… a kid. Ferris Bueller is about classism? I disagree. Unlike Harvard and white tiger cubs, I don’t think the rich have a monopoly on teenage assholes. A teenager thinking they’re smarter than the room is part of the package.
The voice that saves Ferris Bueller is Matthew Broderick, which may seem obvious but bears repeating. A lot of praise today falls at the feet of Alan Ruck as Cameron, and rightly so because he’s awesome. But Cameron is a strong character on the page, while the Ferris that appears in the shooting script is a lot closer to the unrepentant asshole he’s accused of being. (Think Tucker Max without the glib womanizing.) Without Broderick, Ferris is unlikable and his message is horrifically self-serving—he literally destroys Cameron’s life and then heads home for dinner—but Broderick and his gentle delivery not only softens the character’s tone, but seems to have prompted Hughes to soften the writing as well. Ferris’s blatant manipulation of Cameron in the script translates into honest companionship in the film. Ferris simply wants Cameron to join him in a perfect day, and that goes for us as well. Great films are often praised for their complexity. In Ferris Bueller, the magic is in its simplicity. The movie is clean, focused, and on message: “life is frikkin’ awesome.”
Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and it’s done wonders for the Hughes films as his audience has grown up and grown wistful, but Ferris Bueller doesn’t need life-support from nostalgia to survive; it can thrive on its own breezy good nature. Most Hughes films remind us of how we felt At That Age, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is ageless. We love Ferris and root for him to succeed because he satisfies our own desire to break out of the system (how many of you grown-ups took a “mental health” day last year?) The film says that the world could be our theme park if we just bluff our way past the gatekeepers. We can be the Sausage King of Chicago if we want it bad enough. We can carpe the fucking diem. But mostly the film says that, while we may not be Ferris, becoming Cameron is no way to live. That’s Hughes’s lesson, funneled directly at us through the wisdom of a baby faced teen. And we learned it, I think. The fundamental meaning of life, summed up by a day off from it.
The John Hughes Project
1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
6. Uncle Buck
8. Curly Sue
Next Week: The final wrap-up on the John Hughes Project, followed by some year-end lists! See ya then!
John Hughes’s most famous film, but not quite his best. (And Happy New Year, everyone!)
Five very different teenagers arrive for Saturday detention at their Shermer high school. Most want to get past the day quietly, all save teen delinquent John Bender (Judd Nelson) who wreaks havoc in the room until, in a development that surprises even him, the group begins to open up and talk with one another. By the end of the day, the teens have formed a bond and dub themselves The Breakfast Club.
John Hughes intended The Breakfast Club to be his directorial debut after breaking into Hollywood with scripts for Vacation and Mr. Mom, but he was sidetracked by Molly Ringwald’s headshot and Sixteen Candles. Once Candles was in the can, Hughes immediately began production on Club and was deep into shooting before Candles saw release. It was the “overnight” success of both films that cemented Hughes’s reputation as the man who could draw the elusive teen demographic to theatres. As usual, Hughes filmed Club in Illinois, this time at Maine North High School. He used the same school for his follow-up, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Be honest. Do you want a paragraph about the various highs and lows of the film’s legendary soundtrack and score? Or do you just want to hear Simple Minds do their thing?
At 26, Judd Nelson was the oldest of the “teen” actors and his experience and raw talent helped him dominate the room as Bender, the outlaw student that shakes the other four out of their clique-centric routines. Bender is merciless and sharp, and he treats the other students in the room like a science experiment or, more accurately, like ants under threat of his magnifying glass. He zeroes in on the others like a predator, and they alternately herd together or break apart at his whim. It’s a well-written character—one of Hughes’s best— and Nelson nails it. The audience can almost see the demons wrestling around inside of his skin, and his performance turns Bender into one of the most iconic characters of the 1980s. It may be overstating it to put Nelson’s work alongside the early, tortured performances of James Dean and Marlon Brando, but that’s only because as good as Nelson was as Bender, the rest of his career has been wholly unremarkable. Still, try to keep your eyes off of him any time he’s on screen. He is the movie.
Can someone explain to me why Claire and Bender wind up together at the end? Sure, there’s sexual tension between them right from the start, but before she sneaks into solitary confinement to make out with him, their last conversation ends with her in tears as Bender verbally dismantles her self-esteem. Hey, asshole, let’s see you apply lipstick with your breasts.
At one point during The Breakfast Club, rebel-without-an-off-button John Bender tells himself a joke while crawling through the ductwork in the ceiling of his school. The setup is promising—a woman, a dog, a bar, and a salami—but gravity finds him before he gets to the punchline and the joke is forever unfinished. That more or less sums up my feelings about The Breakfast Club, a film that most Hughes fans (and non-fans) consider to be the director’s finest 97 minutes of work, but a film that, for me, never quite sticks its own landing. So close, and yet down through the ceiling it goes.
A Jock. A Princess. A Criminal. A Brain. A Basket Case. The list sounds like another joke, even minus the dog and the salami, but these adjectives are where the problem begins. For evidence, look at the fan outrage over the remaking of Allison (Ally Sheedy). Allison begins the film as a quirky, Harpo-like fruitcake, but then Claire (Molly Ringwald) fixes her hair and off comes the sweater and bam, faster than you can say She’s All That, Allison has snared the football star. Fans sneer at the implied message: Allison must become Claire to land a boy. Even Sheedy admits the film took a wrong turn. The Basket Case shouldn’t have to become the Princess.
But isn’t that the whole point? The jock (Emilio Estevez) smokes weed and shatters glass with his rebel yell, just like a criminal. The princess throws off her tiara by kissing Bender, who wears her earring on the way off campus (while walking across the jock’s field.) And the brain… well, OK, they still make Anthony Michael Hall write their detention paper.
The point of Hughes’s film is that roles are meaningless. Hughes himself often fielded questions about which one he was in high school. His answer was always “none of them,” and I believe that’s what we’re meant to take away. These kids are not their roles and at the same time they are all of them, but still fans can’t accept that Allison—clearly a damaged, troubled girl—pulls back her hair and kisses a boy because she’s “abandoning” her part. The buried message is for teens to cast off their divisions, but teens identify too greedily and too deep.
The genius of The Breakfast Club is that it rallies its young audience with soul-gnashing pop profundity (“When you get old, your heart dies”), while secretly feeding them a grown-up lecture to get over their bullshit. Even while unspooling his anti-clique message, Hughes makes time to declare that high school ain’t shit via the film’s only adult characters. One is a janitor, revealed as a former top man on campus in a blink-and-miss-it early shot, but now toiling in a job that’s film shorthand for missed opportunities.
The other is Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason), drunk on his own importance in a job that shovels just as much garbage, but with better dental. These men could team up to give the kids a lesson they really need—just keep your heads down until college. Instead, teacher and former student wind up in the basement together, where the student still calls out the teacher as a pompous windbag, and the teacher still dismisses the student as unworthy to speak. When the conversation is over, both are still in the basement.
Some people wonder where the Breakfast Club would be today, but that strikes me as a strange question. These characters are special only because of their total lack of speciality. That’s not an insult. Every senior class has a batch of kids exactly like these, anonymous both before and after their one brush with detention. Like a red-brick office building, these kids are just generic enough to be specifically anything. Where are they now? They’re where everyone else is, trudging and hoping. This is why they’re universal. This is why every teen looks into the film and finds themselves, and it’s this self-discovery that makes them so unwilling to hear Hughes’s plea to let all of that crap go. The film’s universality is what makes it great, but also why it’s never finished its mission. There are still jocks and nerds and criminals and princesses and brains, and they all look at this film and say “this is me.” But it isn’t. Or perhaps it is, but, we hope, not for long.
The John Hughes Project
2. The Breakfast Club
6. Uncle Buck
8. Curly Sue
Any travel nightmares this holiday? Be thankful you didn’t meet these guys.
High-strung Neal Page (Steve Martin) misses the last safe flight to Chicago mostly because of his brief encounter with Del Griffith (John Candy), an obnoxious, but well-meaning salesman. A storm strands the pair in Kansas and they’re forced to work together to get home for Thanksgiving. After an odyssey of misadventures and disasters, the two gradually become friends; Neal even invites Del to Thanksgiving dinner when he learns that the salesman has nowhere else to go.
By the time John Hughes made Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, he had become so canonized as the peddler of teen dramedy that his departure into grown-up movies made national headlines. PTA had no high school or hunky jock in sight, and Hughes dared to make a hero out of Neal Page, a man who closely resembles the kind of absent, revved-up parent that one of Hughes’s teen protagonists might grouse about. Strangely, Hughes’s naysayers seemed to have forgotten Vacation, a film that PTA is just a Griswold away from recreating.
Speaking of Chevy Chase, Hughes wisely cast established comedy stars in PTA and gave them room to play; he reportedly shot enough footage for a whopping three hour rough cut but the studio “suggested” that Hughes trim back to a leaner 92 minutes.
Kevin Bacon has a cameo as a fellow traveler who steals Neal’s taxi in New York. Although it’s not clear in the film, one theory suggests that Bacon is playing Jake Briggs, his character from She’s Having a Baby, which shot its footage very close to the shoot for PTA. I hope that’s true. Briggs is meant to be a Hughes stand-in, and since it’s the missed taxi that causes all of Neal’s trouble, it’s as if Hughes himself is winking at all the nastiness he’s about to unsnarl at his hero.
Hughes allows his stars to steal the show and restrains himself from stuffing the soundtrack with unnecessary distraction. As a result, the film sports a tame collection of pop ditties (“Modigliani” by Book of Love) and classic R&B (Ray Charles’s “Mess Around” is the most memorable song in the film, mostly because of what John Candy does with it.)
John Candy’s Uncle Buck is a nice creation and a character that plays well to his strengths as a comic performer, but neither the role nor the performance is even in the same galaxy as Candy’s work as Del Griffith. Del belongs to a long lineage of film characters who act as mobile chaos storms, with a mission to derail the best-laid plans of an exasperated hero for our amusement, but unlike most of these stock sidekicks—Zach Galafanakis in the recent, terrible Due Date, for example—Candy actually brings heart to the role. Del feels like a real person, not a talking environmental condition. It’s maybe Candy’s best role and essential viewing for fans.
The sappiest moment of the movie isn’t always its weak spot. In PTA, the undisputed sweet spot is the finale, set to Blue Room’s cover of “Everytime you Go Away.” After 90 minutes of hijinks and jokes about sleep-fisting, the sugary pop smacks the viewer in the jaw. Candy scores again with his frank confession, and every guy in the room pretends he’s got something in his eye.
I know that Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a great movie because once you’ve seen it, it’s impossible to forget. As this Christmas season stampeded through my life, I thought of the movie almost constantly. For example, just yesterday I had to put my daughter on an airplane in the snow at the nation’s busiest airport. While we waited for her plane to de-ice—a task that somehow encourages and terrifies simultaneously—I noticed the flight in line before hers was a puddle jumper headed to Augusta and that the flight was three hours past its planned departure. Augusta is a two-plus hour highway scoot from Atlanta’s airport, meaning that the stranded passengers could have hailed a taxi, driven to Augusta, and still had time to chow at the Waffle House while they endured their layover. In that situation, it’s easy to think of poor Neal Page.
The strange fact about PTA is that it’s a simple movie—weightlessness is coded into its DNA—and yet it’s somehow become an acknowledged classic even with the pipe and suspenders crowd. And yet, although cursed with critical appeal, there’s no great kernel of Truth at the center of PTA. The film says little about the human condition, save for a rote message about not being a jerk to others. No, PTA’s greatness is assured simply because it’s funny. Hughes’s material is good and the men working with it are great. This sounds simple. It’s not. Back to Due Date, a fine example of how the recipe gets botched, director Todd Phillips cast the right actors (both Downey and Zach G. are comedy gold), but handed them awful characters. Galafanakis plays a person so thick and destructive that it’s tough to figure how he’s still alive and not entertaining the internet as a Darwin Award nominee. When Neal and Del explode at one another in the famous PTA hotel room, it’s a payoff to a slow build. In Due Date, every scene is pitched at that level of rage, and even though Downy plays a royal DB, you root for him to sell Galafanakis to the first circus they find.
Compare that to PTA, where Del gnaws on Neal’s exposed nerves, but otherwise exists as a human being. We’re told that Del sells shower curtain rings, a character trait that reads like a joke but returns to the plot repeatedly to expose Del’s goodness. He sells rings to passers-by so he can buy Neal breakfast. He knows every motel owner between Saxapahaw and Saskatoon, and they help him because they like him. Del is a nice guy, but he’s not Neal’s cup of joe, and that’s Neal’s problem. We’re rooting for Neal to grow up, not for Del to go away.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles reminds me of It Happened One Night, another light and fluffy road movie that happens to be one of the best comedies ever made and, just like PTA, a fine romance. OK, so maybe Steve Martin and John Candy don’t make for a traditional romantic match, but as with most buddy comedies, the subtext is there. Neal spends days struggling to get home to his wife, but Hughes provides no corroborating evidence that it’s a place Neal should want to be. Neal’s wife, when she’s present in the film at all, seems to blame Neal for the fickle weather, then vanishes soon after, save for the occasional reaction shot and the oddly ethereal stairway descent in the last scene. She barely registers as a destination for Neal. Instead, Neal’s true victory can’t happen until he makes it home with his true love interest, and that only happens after he turns around to pick up Del.
The rumored three-hour cut of the film probably restores much of Neal’s wife to the plot (you don’t hire Laila Robins and forget she exists.) I swear I once heard a rumor that the extended cut reveals that Del is not as pathetic as he seems, and the secret twist is that Del does this to some other Neal Page every Thanksgiving so that he doesn’t have to eat alone. Unfortunately, damn my weak Google skills, the internet won’t back me up and it’s possible I invented the story completely. Still, I always liked the idea that Del has his own twisted agenda. I bet the Page family had expensive new shower curtain rings before the turkey was cold.
The John Hughes Project
3. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
6. Uncle Buck
8. Curly Sue
Serious problems in a small town.
Sam Baker (Molly Ringwald) awakes on her sixteenth birthday, disappointed to discover she hasn’t yet transformed into a busty sexpot. She’s willing to settle for presents and cake, but discovers to her annoyance that her family has forgotten her birthday. School doesn’t improve the situation. Sam is in love with Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), the hunky jock, and she’s under attack by geeky Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall), who needs her panties in order to win a bet. Coincidentally, Sam’s birthday falls on the date of the Big Dance, where she makes eye contact with Jake while dancing with Ted. Humiliated, Sam escapes for home, but Ted confesses Sam’s secret to Jake, and the hunk decides to find her. When he does, Sam and Jake share a belated birthday kiss. Also, Farmer Ted date-rapes the prom queen.
When it came to writing, John Hughes was kind of like a superhero, or some legendary gunslinger who could shoot five bank robbers with just one bullet. Except, instead of bank robbers, John Hughes wrote screenplays, and instead of shooting bullets, he just wrote them really, really fast. The most famous story about Hughes and his writing, true or not, is how he wrote the screenplay for Sixteen Candles. Hughes had supposedly been given the approval to see actors for The Breakfast Club, the movie that was meant to be his directorial debut, but when going through headshots, he ran across a picture of young Molly Ringwald. Taken by her awkward, All-American good looks, he supposedly pinned her picture above his typewriter and started writing, and the result was this film. There’s some holes in the story—a few sources suggest that the script was already in the studio’s hands and that Hughes was doing a rewrite—but it stuck, which is why Ringwald is still referred to today as Hughes’s muse.
The music-crazy Hughes crammed his debut film with something like 30 songs, a shotgun blast at the teen zeitgeist that included tracks from the likes of Wham!, David Bowie, Billy Idol, AC/DC, The Specials, and Oingo Boingo. Oddly, only five of these (really, just five songs) made it to the official soundtrack release, including the Stray Cats’s cover of the title song. Despite being too short and way lame, the soundtrack is still an out-of-print collector’s item. As of this writing, Amazon.com has four used copies, each in the $40 range, or $8 a song.
The pop-culture machine we call Sixteen Candles is powered by the Nietzschian ubermensch of all Hughes movie misfits and the inspiration for this category: The Geek (or Farmer Ted, as he calls himself in the film.) 1984 was a big year for the Hollywood nerd (Revenge of the Nerds was a monster success), and Anthony Michael Hall—a nobody before this film and a mascot for all 80s teen cinema after it—earns points for avoiding comic- or tech-nerd cliche. Actually, thumbs-up goes to Hughes’s script as well, which allows Ted to be what most nerds truly are: like everyone else, just terrible at it. Ted is as sex-crazed as his popular peers, but is simply wired the wrong way to do anything about it. Way more than the bland, questionably-motivated Jake Ryan (see below), Ted is the male lead and the heart of the film, and Hall has spent much of his acting career trying to escape from this skinny kid’s huge shadow.
The final shot is the famous birthday cake kiss, with Jake leaning over to smooch Sam in the candlelight while asking her to make a wish. Sappy, but memorable.
I’ve danced around my central problem with Sixteen Candles since the opening paragraph, so please forgive me if I put it off for just a while longer. I’ve ranked the film as the fourth best on this list, and I don’t think it deserves me opening on its faults. After all, Sixteen Candles was a cultural smart bomb when it was released, so tightly constructed and specifically targeted that its impact is still rippling in modern teen flicks. Wherever there’s a group of horny losers desperate to get laid, wherever the Big Dance is just the prelude for a killer after-party, wherever parents just don’t understand, Sixteen Candles is there.
Like any template, the value in Sixteen Candles derives from its all-purpose blankness. The film sketches broad outlines, but we color it with our own adolescence. Sam Baker is a heroine for just such an empty place, a girl who is less a real person than she is a sounding board for hardwired adolescent impatience, which is why every teenager in ‘84 thought the film was about them. Sam’s high school is generic enough to be anywhere (Skokie is a town built to franchise), and every teenager who sees her relates to her central dilemma: as teens, we all had one unattainable object of desire, and we all suffered one unwanted advance because we, sadly, were somebody else’s unattainable object of desire. The film succeeds and endures because it’s the every-teen adventure, a hero’s journey that exists just before that damned call to adventure, where the hero begins the story waiting to arrive and ends the story still waiting, but one satisfying step closer. Sam and Jake will break up over the summer, but Sam learned that her dreams are attainable, she is attractive, and she can make it on her own. The real adventure can begin. This is the staple storyline of the coming-of-age film, and it purrs here. No wonder Hughes became the Hollywood “it” guy. Give the man two days and a Molly Ringwald head shot and he can spin manna from 20 lb. paper and make every American teen want to school in middle Illinois, despite Sam’s high school being, quite possibly, the worst in the world.
Now, let me ask you, what exactly is going on with the teenage boys in Shermer? In my post on Weird Science, I suggested that there was a time and a place to discover Weird Science and love it forever. The same may be true of Sixteen Candles, but that time and place is one that I didn’t even know existed, a time where date rape was a character quirk and women could be traded for underpants. As I watched the film again recently, I kept waiting for Jake Ryan to earn his heartthrob status and prove to Sam that chivalry was not dead. He never fails to disappoint:
- He shows no interest in Sam until he accidentally intercepts a sex quiz she filled out in home room confessing that she’d like to “do it” with him.
- He asks his 40-ish jock buddy about her and the guy can only talk about her value as a sex partner. Jake doesn’t really have a counter-argument.
- The following line about his girlfriend: “I’ve got Caroline in the bedroom right now, passed out cold. I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.”
- The fact that, fully aware of her condition as you can see above, he literally trades Caroline to Farmer Ted in exchange for Sam’s underwear.
- He never gives Sam back her underwear.
- Again: We have no idea why he wants the underwear, and it’s never seen again.
Jake isn’t alone. It seems this kind of thing happens all the time. Farmer Ted—already an “endearing” sex fiend who asks nicely for Sam’s underpants to win a bet, but then improvises by selling peeks to the entire nerd flock—drives the blitzed Caroline over to his buddy John Cusack’s house to get pictures of her draped all over him. Keep in mind that she’s unconscious and he’s completely sober. The next morning, Caroline and Ted wake up in a parking lot with the vague memory that they had sex. The memory lapse makes sense for Caroline because, again, drunk. But Farmer Ted? I can’t stress this enough. We never see him drink. Despite the very real possibility that Farmer Ted has committed a few felonies on her person, Caroline inexplicably falls in love with him. Yup, Sixteen Candles and Crank: Two movies that prove that if you just rape someone enough, they’ll love you for it.
(Note: I didn’t really mention Long Duk Dong, the foreign exchange student played by Gedde Watanabe. Dong—both the character and the pun on Chinese names—is considered to be one of the movie’s most glaring embarrassments. For the record, I don’t really have an opinion. Is it offensive? Probably. Have I seen worse? Definitely. Does that excuse it? Not really, but what can be said? It was the 80s. It was a weird fucking decade. At least the character was played by an actual Asian-American, not Mickey Rooney.)
The John Hughes Project
4. Sixteen Candles
6. Uncle Buck
8. Curly Sue
….eventually. In the last 20 minutes. Trust me.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
8. Curly Sue
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