The filmmaker who put teenage voices into American cinema, and made it stick, is John Hughes. You’ve probably heard this bio as many times as you’ve heard The Simple Minds’ Don’t You Forget About Me on classic hits radio. Hughes deserves the recognition he gets as the leader of a teenage revolution in cinema, but he was just as proficient with his approach to adulthood.
It took four films to get there, but following Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Hughes delivered Planes, Trains and Automobiles, a semi-autobiographical tale of his experiences with the American transport system trying to get home to his family during the holidays. An odd couple road movie about empathising with strangers and making connections in a world of uncertainly, in this case, every mode of transport Neal Page (Steve Martin) and Del Griffith (John Candy) encounter on their nightmare trip. It’s hostile out there, even the hire car employees (a Hughes’ mainstay, Edie McClurg) are ready to bite back. Hughes’ use of expletives in this scene is like he’s getting every adult frustration off his chest after holding back in the kid’s play area of his career.
Watch a scene clip of 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' (Language warning!):
Hughes’ adult focus continued with She’s Having a Baby, which centred on newlyweds (Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern) uncertain about the vow they’ve made to each other. In the opening scene one of the in-laws says, “people don’t mature anymore, they’re jackasses for life.” Hughes takes his lead character (Bacon) and shows their immature approach to the fear of adulthood and commitment that serves as the central premise of the film. Bacon’s character, already planning an escape in his first scene, breaks with reality throughout the film with fantastical visions of the life he has chosen that presents a harsh truth or lampoons marriage; the ‘dance of the lawnmowers’ sequence is as close as we get to a Hughes’ musical. She’s Having a Baby begins to follow the course of many Hughes’ films by presenting adults as miserable drones. As soon as the ‘baby’ part in the title kicks in (quite late in a film making this promise), Hughes’ switches his outlook to the realisation that the hardships of adult life allow for appreciation of all the good percolating when you’re too hung up to notice. As Ferris Bueller puts it (borrowing from John Lennon), “life is what happens while you’re busy making plans.”
Watch 'Uncle Buck' trailer:
It would all culminate in Hughes’ Uncle Buck, a film that blends both the teen and adult worlds. Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly) is a teenager who thinks she’s an adult and Buck (John Candy) doesn’t want to commit to being an adult. Where these two characters cross over is where Uncle Buck shines. Tia discovers she doesn’t know everything and Buck realises he’s ready to impart his wisdom onto others; Hughes outlines this as his commitment to a steady job, which may lead to starting a family with his girlfriend (Amy Madigan). In his own unique way, Buck is ready, there is enough room in his heart for more family. The scene where he discovers his brother’s wedding photos have Buck folded out of them states how much of a joke he is within his own family. Buck embraces his wacky approach as a strength to be the best person he can be for others, which is to provide, to love, to go beyond his own selfishness; that’s a noble adult decision.
And Buck is surrounded by oddball children (Gaby Hoffman and Macaulay Culkin) who appear like aliens in the way meeting other people’s children always feels like a close encounter. Hughes’ still has a playful view of things in Uncle Buck but it’s at a more adult level than ever before. When Buck goes to the bathroom at his niece and nephew’s school, he's crouching down to use the child-size urinals. An adult in the throes of arrested development being forced to live in a child-size world is funny, and it’s where Hughes finds the humour in Buck's loose style of caring for his brother’s kids.
Hughes has always been a master at acknowledging that life is messy and odd. Buck is all of Hughes’ ideals rolled into one character. John Candy’s performance is one of great humour and humility and it brings to the surface all of Hughes’ anxiety toward what would become of the teenage characters he committed to celluloid. You feel that trepidation in Hughes’ more adult orientated approach to storytelling, he set up so many teen characters for their moment to shine, but what if they failed? It’s an idea that permeates throughout Planes, She’s Having a Baby and Uncle Buck, it’s something Hughes is processing as he attempts to mature as a filmmaker, and he took on maturity with vigour.
'Uncle Buck' screens on SBS Viceland Saturday November 4, 10:45pm. Please note that the film will not be available for catch-up at SBS on Demand.