The Great Outdoors” (1988) is the John Hughes movie I most watched as a kid, probably for the random reason that we taped it off of HBO and so it was readily available on a hand-labeled VHS tape. It wasn’t a knock against his other films. But it is an appropriate choice, because kids like quoting movies, and this might be the most quotable of Hughes’ catalog.
Structurally, it’s not much different from the “Vacations,” as John Candy steps into the harried Chicago dad role as Chet Ripley, and before long he’s being dragged across a lake on water skis, everyone mistaking “You bastard!” for “Faster!”
Directed by Howard Deutch, “The Great Outdoors” is a 90-minute wisp of set pieces held together by the glue of the Ripleys being irked – and viewers being entertained – by the unannounced visit of Chet’s brother-in-law Roman Craig and his family. Dan Aykroyd is on point as Roman, enunciating every word in the arrogant fashion of a Wall Street wheeler-dealer whose brashness covers up some dark secret.
Although this is one of those movies where the cast and crew are having a blast – it’s bookended with a sing-along and dance-along – the Chet-Roman rivalry gives “The Great Outdoors” heft because the actors are so good. Plus, Annette Bening, in her big-screen debut as wife Kate, is constantly laughing at and supporting Roman’s obnoxious brand of humor.
And there are other little annoyances like their twin girls who never talk, to the point where Chet’s son Buck (Chris Young) describes them “creepy.” Although Hughes didn’t do any horror films, he loves referencing them. Mara and Cara are perhaps a nod to the twins from “The Shining,” and Chet name-drops Freddy Krueger during his campfire tale about the angry bald bear who lurks through the north woods.
Despite being written by the coming-of-age master, “The Great Outdoors” whiffs on the B-plot of teenage Buck hitting it off with townie Cammie (Lucy Deakins). A fair percentage of screen time is spent on a thread of Buck missing their scheduled dates because of family stuff. The Buck-Cammie moments do tap into dreamy nostalgia about hot summer nights and town fairs, but more could’ve been done here.
By the way, Hughes plays the location almost as a joke. At one point Roman says “Watch out for those Wisconsin rattlers!” but at other times Minnesota, Michigan and Canada are name-dropped. It’s one of the few gags that doesn’t connect. (The movie was actually filmed in California, which stands in well for the north woods.)
The joke batting average here must be at least .900, a lot of them coming from one-liners. “Time to introduce Mr. Thick Dick to Mr. Urinal Cake.” “There’s nothing left on that plate but gristle and fat.” “Nobody’s blowing anything out their ass.”
The film boasts tremendous stunts. Candy looks like he’s really water-skiing, and in the climactic bear attack sequence, there isn’t a single shot where it looks fake. Bart the Bear, who later starred in “The Edge,” brings his A-game.
Hughes ends the film on a nice note, with Roman doing the right thing by ripping up Chet’s check and showing bravery against the bear. In that way, this is more family friendly than the “Vacations,” which have a darker edge wherein the Griswolds never truly escape hapless Cousin Eddie and other annoyances.
“The Great Outdoors” is less substantial than the two great “Vacation” entries, but the dialog still sings to this day. Even when cranking out a 90-minute quickie between “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and “Uncle Buck,” the Hughes-Candy team (with the bonus of Aykroyd) delights us.