Last thoughts on John Hughes
The many conversations about John Hughes that have erupted in the A.V. Club office since the writer/director’s death last Thursday have revealed some wildly different opinions. As a way of giving shape to those opinions, a few writers offer their takes on Hughes’ best and worst films below.
Looking back at all of the remembrances and criticisms, I realized that I’ve been an extremely lucky John Hughes fan (and I’ve always considered myself a fan). The reason I’m lucky? I think I’ve only seen (and loved) Hughes’ classics: I can watch Sixteen Candles over and over again, and love it. It doesn’t matter if it’s on HBO (“No more yanky my wanky, the Donger need food!”) or on regular TV (“No more Yankee rum drinky, the Donger need food!”), if it’s on, I’m almost certainly in for the long haul. Other favorites from childhood: Ferris Bueller (saw it at the Fox Bay, it was packed), Pretty In Pink (what an insanely formative soundtrack), and National Lampoon’s Vacation (still brilliant). So in my limited experience, Hughes is pretty much batting 1.000. I even have fond memories of Home Alone, though I haven’t seen it since it came out. What I haven’t seen? Anything after 1990.
But let’s go back to Sixteen Candles. You can easily argue that The Breakfast Club was drawn with broad strokes (and was guilty of stereotyping), but the people of Sixteen Candles were perfectly realized—even those that caused offense because they were too over-the-top. (C’mon—these “types” were so real that you can probably remember some of them from your high-school experience.) And nobody is really treated with kid gloves: Molly Ringwald is annoying! I often think that, between Sixteen Candles and Pretty In Pink, Hughes was relating some of his own experiences, just updating them to include some of the modern music that he loved. (And oh, those soundtracks: Don’t get me started on the music that John Hughes brought to us. Would I love New Order without him? Probably, but still…) And if you haven’t seen this woman’s blog about her friendship with Hughes, you should.
A while back on his WFMU program The Best Show, Tom Scharpling went on an inspired rant about how much he hated people who began eulogies with, “Not a fan but…” When people are mourning because someone special and important to them has died, is there really any need to advertise your hostility or indifference toward the deceased? That said, I have to begin my reflections on John Hughes with the hated, “Not a fan, but…” I have a long and tormented history with Hughes’ work. I spent one month of my adolescence in one of the wealthy northern Chicago suburbs chronicled so indelibly in Hughes’ films. In college I wrote a 12-page paper comparing Home Alone to George H.W. Bush’s handling of Iraq. Hughes’ work always struck me as smug, condescending, and faintly mean. When I think of a Hughes gag, the first that springs to mind is the scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where Chevy Chase and family ask for directions in a poor, black neighborhood and get their hubcaps stolen. See, it’s funny because if you’re white then black people will rob you. To me, that gag, from Hughes’ first blockbuster screenplay, represented the classism, misanthropy, and lazy caricatures of Hughes’ films. I always thought he was part of National Lampoon’s shift from mocking the powerful to mocking the powerless.
If I had to choose my favorite Hughes film, it’d probably be Planes, Trains And Automobiles. As my colleague Noel Murray points out below, John Candy brought out the best in Hughes. I don’t remember it vividly, but I recall it being a rock-solid comedy with some genius bits and great chemistry between perfectly chosen leads. As for my least favorite, that’d have to be Home Alone, which I find punishingly unwatchable, a creepy, incredibly manipulative crowd-pleaser that veers glibly between sentimental pabulum and ugly sadism. Maybe it’s just the old Wobbly in me, but I spent the entire film rooting for the burglars. The folks at Guantanamo had it easy compared to the torments of the damned suffered by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.
In the hours and days after John Hughes died last week, the Internet lit up with tributes to the man whose name was synonymous with the suburban adolescent experience in the 1980s. And I’ll admit that his films hit the sweet spot of my own teenage years: For my 13-year-old self, Sixteen Candles was less resonant as a love story than for its cutaway to exposed boobage (with accompanying “boooooing” sound), but by the time The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off rolled around, I believed—like seemingly everybody else my age—that Hughes got it. He understood the painful trials of teenage romance; the cluelessness of teachers, parents, and other authority figures; and a high school caste system that put firm barriers between rich and poor, jock and nerd, princess and pariah.
Then I grew up, and began to think of John Hughes as a fraud, someone with a talent for generalizing teenage behavior so broadly that everyone could see themselves on screen. I think Pauline Kael put it best when she described The Breakfast Club as “a movie about a bunch of stereotypes who complain that other people see them as stereotypes.” At the time, I saw myself in Anthony Michael Hall, who played the book-learnin’ dweeb who couldn’t manage the practical task of putting a lamp together in shop class. But then, there was nothing specific about him that comes out in that long Saturday session; he’s just a quivering repository of nerd-like attributes. Contrast that with the “geeks” in Freaks & Geeks, who are infinitely more particular and recognizable.
Asked to give a favorite Hughes movie, I’d reluctantly settle on Sixteen Candles, which I haven’t seen in probably 20 years, but remember for Molly Ringwald having to navigate an excruciatingly awkward series of obstacles: She pines for a guy who seems out of her league, fends off a nerd who’s infatuated with her, has her sweet 16th birthday upstaged by her sister’s wedding, and deals with a set of grandparents who take notice of her pubescent flowering. (For comic relief, there’s also Long Duk Dong, whose name alone suggests why he’s the most offensive stereotype of his kind since Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Hughes’ track record on non-whites is arguably worse than Woody Allen’s.) For me, what resonates most in Hughes’ films are some of the performances: Ringwald as a quirky and vulnerable object of desire; Hall with his expectant puppy-dog eyes and profound wimpiness (when Hall started pumping iron, he was no longer the same actor); Harry Dean Stanton’s frailty and sweetness in Pretty In Pink; and the iconic swagger of Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
As for Hughes at his worst, take your pick: Some Kind Of Wonderful (or as my friends liked to call it, Some Kind Of Terrible) reheated the Pretty In Pink formula to far worse effect, and his post-’80s career as a writer and producer lapsed into crude family-friendly slapstick and sentimentality. It’s telling that as his work got more impersonal, his credits receded in kind: Not many obituaries have brought up the work he did under the pseudonym Edmond Dantès, like the Beethoven movies, Maid In Manhattan, and Drillbit Taylor. But to stick with his work as writer-director, let me bypass obvious stinkers like Curly Sue and Uncle Buck (sorry, Noel), and single out Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for overrated status. Good as Broderick is as Ferris, the character has always struck me as a smug, arrogant bully, someone who’s incapable of seeing beyond his own immediate gratification. The fantasy of skipping school, putting one over on your parents and teachers, and turning Chicago into your personal playground is an alluring one, but Ferris himself makes an unctuous master of ceremonies. To quote Eric Cartman misquoting Ferris on South Park: “Life goes pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while and do whatever you want all the time, you could miss it.”
I saw and liked Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club on home video shortly after their release, which was also shortly before entering high school myself. They felt like primers for the world to come at the time, but they don’t really hold up to the cold scrutiny of adult eyes, much less the eyes of an adult film critic. I caught up with others, like Pretty In Pink, Some Kind Of Wonderful, and Planes, Trains And Automobiles years later. I regard them kindly. I’d call none of them great.
Yet, when I think of John Hughes, I think of him fondly. My first thoughts aren’t of the punchline phrases bandied about like a secret code in the halls of my junior high. And it’s not about the broadly drawn characters, the pseudo-profound dialogue (”When you grow up your heart dies.” “Who cares?” “I care!”), the broad stereotypes (racial and otherwise), or the increasingly formulaic plotting of his screenwriter-for-hire years. It’s about the texture of those teen movies, the way Hughes and Hughes surrogates like Howard Deutch let their pulled-from-today’s-yearbook cast loose into a drama-fraught suburban anywhere, their dramas and the songs accompanying their dramas suggesting that their parents paid for their sell-out paradise in teen angst. If ultimately Hughes came down on the side of suburban conformity—and I think he did—the films still had the first stirrings of discontent, the hissing of summer lawns Joni Mitchell sang about.
Picking a favorite’s easy for me: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. When I rewatched it a couple of years ago I found its central notion that there’s a whole world waiting outside the routines of the daily grind still resonated, maybe even more so as an adult. (And it makes my adopted hometown of Chicago look like the awesomest place on earth.) My least favorite: Probably a movie I only saw for the first time a year or so ago, She’s Having A Baby. Hughes had a hard time dragging the dramas of teen-dom into the grown-up world and bringing that approach into adulthood felt pretty phony. And, unlike the better Hughes high school movies, it’s way too easy to see the strings being pulled. That scene in which, out of nowhere, Elizabeth McGovern almost dies giving birth? Pretty shameless. But pairing it with Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” almost made it work anyway. He had something, John Hughes, even if he didn’t always know what to do with it.
I can summarize all that was good and bad about John Hughes in two words: Uncle Buck. When I first started getting deeper into movies in high school, I took what I was studying about cinema and used it to champion the popular ’80s directors I already liked. Barry Levinson was a big one for me then; and John Hughes was another. When Planes, Trains And Automobiles came out, I bored everyone around me with long explanations of why it wasn’t just another funny, crowd-pleasing comedy but was rather a perfect blend of different comedy styles (slapstick, screwball, farce) filtered through the personality of a filmmaker who infused his work with a distinctive look and sound. And I still feel that way about PTA, even though I’ve seen that movie (and Hughes’ other near-perfect film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) so many times that they don’t amuse me the way they used to. I find myself admiring the style and tuning out the dialogue and heavy-handed audience-manipulation—two things I used to hail Hughes for.
And yet I still really go for Uncle Buck, one of those betwixt-and-between movies Hughes made when he was trying to migrate away from teen fare (but before he shifted to kiddie fare). Anchored by one of John Candy’s best performances, Uncle Buck has a quiet confidence that the more manic early Hughes films lack. It’s full of little funny moment—like Candy going through his morning coughing routine, or him smashing a plate on the edge of a piano because he’s convinced it’s unbreakable—but it’s also grounded in the kind of realistic family squabbles that run through Hughes’ movies from Sixteen Candles to Home Alone. It also includes its fair share of Hughes-ian visual wit, whether it’s the way Candy’s rattling behemoth of a car is framed as though it were a smoke-belching monster, of the way a scene of a little boy pulling one odd thing after another out of his lunchbox ends perfectly with him meekly asking his tablemates, “Would you like to talk about a possible lunch trade?”
But the frustrating side of Hughes is in Uncle Buck too. He leans heavily on his typically trumped-up class warfare, setting the salt-of-the-earth Candy against yuppie in-laws, snotty teenagers, and prim school administrators, and never letting the audience forget which side they should be on. And of course Hughes can’t resist trying to squeeze a few tears out, by building to a big redemptive moment where the slobby Candy is finally accepted by his family (after teaching them all to loosen up, of course). Hughes only directed one more movie after Uncle Buck, and his scripts grew ever-more reductive, relying on an increasingly bland formula of outsized physical shtick and group-hug endings. Part of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of one of Uncle Buck’s bit players, a young kid named Macaulay Culkin, who’s so cute and funny in his cartoonish interactions with Candy that Hughes decided to build a whole movie around him, Home Alone. (Which, by the way, gets a bad rap from some because of what it inspired; on its own merits, Home Alone is a very entertaining and effective movie.)
I can’t stay mad at Uncle Buck, because like the best of Hughes it’s beholden to Hollywood filmmaking traditions that most of his contemporaries (and followers for that matter) rarely considered. It reaches past the simple slob-vs.-snob structure of the post-Saturday Night Live comedy era and recalls the character-driven, values-driven comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. Hughes leaves room for pathos, as when Candy’s prickly teenage niece tells her younger sister that, “We need boys so they can grow up, get married, and turn into shadows.” Hughes works in classic punchlines, as when Candy’s girlfriend claims to want to hear the pitter-patter of little feet and Candy responds, “I’ll get you a mouse and a piece of sheet metal.” And he allows for total non-sequiturs, as when Candy notes of his headwear, “A lot of people hate this hat. It angers a lot of people, just the sight of it.” For someone whose movies followed such predictable, reliable arcs, Hughes had a high tolerance for the unexpected. And it’s those moments—the weird gestures, the odd lines, the serious turns—that make his movies so enduring.