John Candy wraps up his trilogy of starring roles in John Hughes movies – following “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and “The Great Outdoors” – with the one where he’s asked to do the most heavy lifting. He’s not armed with an A-list co-star or a riotous screenplay in “Uncle Buck” (1989). In the seventh of the eight films where writer Hughes also directs, Candy’s title character finds his sweet bachelor lifestyle (betting at the track, a bowling league, no steady job) is not so cool anymore now that he’s 40.
Indeed, his brother Bob (“Roswell’s” Garrett M. Brown) and Bob’s wife Cindy (Elaine Bromka) have mostly written off this black sheep of the Russell family. Only an emergency – they must travel to Indianapolis when Cindy’s dad has a heart attack – has them plumbing the depths of their address book to call on Buck to babysit their three kids in suburban Chicago.
While big-city Buck doesn’t know how to open a washer or dryer (?!) to do laundry, he must’ve picked up something along the way, because he surprisingly lays down the law with niece Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly), who is quite a piece of work even by the standards of surly teenagerdom.
At least little Miles and Maizy like the big galoot the way we all like Candy. While there’s a slight sense that Macaulay Culkin and Gaby Hoffmann are being coached through their roles, they look like siblings and they are cute. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hughes got the inkling for “Home Alone” by watching Miles’ pseudo-grown-up shtick.
Lightness from the youngsters is needed because the Buck-versus-Tia stuff gets dark. Rude to her uncle upon first meeting, Tia is the classic teenager who is angry at the world. This character shows Hughes’ knack for writing about a lot of different types of people – and how they come off to other people – when one considers how much empathy he has for teens in, say, “The Breakfast Club.”
But while Candy and Kelly do what’s asked of them, I don’t like the simplistic nature of the conflict. Tia wants to spend time with her boyfriend, Bug (Jay Underwood), who is clearly a skeezy person. We’re immediately on the side of Buck, who wants her to stay away from Bug, but his methods are extreme — such as threatening Bug with a hatchet – and not particularly funny.
Tia’s payback methods are tough to watch, too, notably when she tells lies about Buck to her parents and to Buck’s girlfriend, Chicago-accented tire saleswoman Chanice (Amy Madigan).
The thread culminates in a weird way. At a party, Buck storms in on Bug preparing to date-rape a different girl, and it’s implied that he put the same moves on Tia, but she escaped. It might’ve been better if Bug wasn’t so one-dimensional, or – if showing a 15-year-old in a rapey situation is something the filmmakers wanted to avoid – if Tia was in more of a family-film situation. Tia does turn the corner on treating Buck like dirt, but only because she realizes Bug is the greater evil. Would she have come around to Buck’s point of view otherwise?
“Uncle Buck” misses a chance to make Tia more layered, and that speaks to Hughes’ hesitancy on this project. It starts with Tia and Maizy discussing what constitutes a “swear” – “shit” qualifies, but “crap” does not. The film needs more of that type of family-friendly edge, but it often holds back. It’s somehow both too much and not enough.
More crucially, we miss out on uproarious humor, which this plot seems set up for, what with Buck being such a fish out of water in his brother’s family’s suburban house. Sure, we get snort-worthy moments like Buck breaking a valuable plate, and the absurd sight of him washing clothes in the kitchen sink and drying them in a microwave. But it seems like the kids could help him with opening appliance doors and the schedule of the dog’s feeding and watering.
The funniest bits feature neighbor lady Marcie Dahlgren-Frost, entirely because “Roseanne’s” Laurie Metcalf plays it broadly as a lonely woman who tries to act cultured while awkwardly throwing herself at Buck. Metcalf goes well beyond what’s on the page: Marcie misunderstanding Buck’s laundry-room rant, and later teaching him to dance.
“Uncle Buck” is predictable overall, needing more Metcalfian edge to stand out. It’s easy to watch Candy do his thing, and this is heartfelt family viewing even considering the hesitant intimations of violence and rape. Don’t get me wrong; “Uncle Buck” has broad appeal. But it is the weakest of the three Candy-Hughes joints, missing the wacky side trips of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and the belly laughs of “The Great Outdoors.”