After a string of successful films throughout the 1980s including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, and Planes, Trains & Automobiles, John Hughes ended the decade with this film’s movie recommendation, Uncle Buck.
Bob and Cindy Russell can’t leave town without arranging someone to babysit their three children. But when Cindy’s father falls ill, she and Bob are forced to leave in the middle of the night. With no-one else to call, they reluctantly ask Bob’s wayward brother Buck, played by John Candy, to take care of the kids for a few days. They do so with trepidation as Buck is a layabout who hasn’t shown an iota of responsibility or potential as a role model for years. When Buck turns up in the middle of the night, the two youngest children Maizy and Miles are delighted at the prospect of Buck’s visit; however, the eldest daughter Tia, played by Jean Luisa Kelly, shares her parents’ distaste.
The rest of the film deals with Buck’s efforts to ingratiate himself to the children, and he teaches them a little about enjoying life along the way. There are a number of sub-plots: in the first, Buck and Tia engage in a battle of wills over who will crack from the other’s shenanigans first in the face of Buck’s house rules. Buck is determined to prove to the rest of the family that he can insert himself into the children’s lives positively, and Tia detests Buck’s interference. In the second sub-plot, Buck is keen to prove to himself and his ever-patient fiancée that he’s a self-respecting and able-bodied man worthy of her aspirations to start a family of their own together.
Uncle Buck doesn’t have the same kids-let-loose fun of The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While Tia’s story carries some of the same hallmarks of those Hughes classics, her coming of age is precisely the reverse of those other films. Instead of finding a way either to make the adults learn to appreciate her individuality or to dupe them into thinking that she’s conformed while still remaining as mischievous as ever under the surface, Tia ends this film doe-eyed and compliant. She is the sell-out that Hughes’ earlier movies vilified, and her transformation isn’t explained outside of an appeal to Buck’s charm and charisma. The coming of age story in Uncle Buck with which we sympathise, then, is that of the very figure who represents the enemy in Hughes’ earlier films – Buck is an obstinate, I-know-better adult (albeit in a different form) that set down the strictures the children sought to escape. Candy brings wonderful sensitivity to a character otherwise defined by his obduracy.
Many people believe that Uncle Buck is a light-hearted, carefree affair. The same mistake is often made about Hughes’ films. Even in those films of his where the intention is to be schmaltzy, he often interweaves a deeply sorrowful story of being misunderstood. In Home Alone, for example, it’s easy to overlook the profound loneliness that Culkin’s Kevin feels when he realises that this is for real. Uncle Buck is no different, and it’s that melancholy that forms the basis of my favourite scene. In it, Buck drunkenly reflects on the course his life taken, after he has put the children to bed. He muses to the house pet that his friends would congratulate him while he was young and carefree for his lack of anchors tying down his libertine lifestyle. Yet now, drunken and alone, he realises that no-one congratulates him any more. It is poignant and pathetic, and Candy deserves recognition for the versatility of his performance over the course of the film.
On the whole, the film’s solemnity is well masked by quick-fire dialogue and endearing characters. In particular, the scene in which Buck is interrogated by his nephew Miles (played by a pre-Home Alone Macaulay Culkin) about his credentials as a housekeeper is a real delight. As an often-overlooked film in the canons of both John Hughes and of John Candy, Uncle Buck highlights the range of skills both could employ in the space of a single scene. I’m including an example in the clip below, which I think captures many of the sentiments of the whole film: kids growing up, adults as obstacles, witty comedy, and a heartfelt need to recognise one another’s value.