Remembering Uncle Buck

The late John Candy took the title role in a much-loved comedy from the late John Hughes. We look back nearly 30 years, to Uncle Buck.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

It doesn’t take much to secure the slot of an adolescent’s favourite film; there’s usually a finite pool from which to draw. A Venn diagram’s sweet spot would show a delicate balance between the risqué and the family friendly, the immature with a certain sophistication – films that are cool enough to preserve your street cred road man rep but remain a comforting Sunday evening sofa watch.

Nearly 30 years later, Uncle Buck still sits proudly in that sweet spot. Perhaps it’s the fondness for the late, great John Candy that preserves its place in our affections. Perhaps it’s the charm of the innocent wee Macaulay Culkin. Perhaps it’s because Uncle Buck is… just… so… weird.

The premise in itself is straightforward enough: overweight, working class Bachelor babysits a triumvirate of privileged, sheltered and (one particularly resistant) little shits. Hilarity, heart-string pulling and bridge-building ensues. Standard. But it’s the presentation of these ideas that seems strikingly surreal all these years later. Not convinced?

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How about Uncle Buck’s post-modern time-travelling tendencies? Macaulay Culkin later inspired a generation with ingenious ways to cause GBH from the comfort of their own home, as 1990’s Home Alone ironically made Culkin into a household name. However, his turn as Miles Russell in Uncle Buck displayed all of his trademark bankability, comedic delivery and ‘aww’ factor some eight months earlier.

So why, oh why, when Culkin’s character interrogates babysitter Chanice Kobolowski (Amy Madigan) through the letterbox, does he first see a trio not dissimilar to Home Alone’s Wet Bandits peering back? Although this was the scene that apparently inspired writer and director John Hughes to write the home invasion hit, as a twelve year old viewer, this was deeply confusing. Was it a throwaway joke, a nifty little call back, or the catalyst for a Macaulay Culkin Universe? The original MCU? Please say yes.

Forget the Marvel Cinematic Universe then, in this MCU, Culkin’s character was surely adopted by the Russell family after the McCallisters’ negligence, but still experiences flashbacks to those traumatic events. Including meeting Donald Trump. That suggests Buck (Candy) is somehow also Home Alone’s travelling musician Gus Polinski! And then there’s Anna Chlumsky, Culkin’s My Girl co-star sitting next to his sister Maisie in class? Someone warn her about the bees! Not the bees!

The degrees of separation could go on and on ad nauseam (Chanice is Maisie’s mother in Field Of Dreams? *head explodes*) but it did make the film all the more fascinating at the time. With this in mind, it’s worth remembering that like Home Alone, Uncle Buck treads that fine line between being based in reality and becoming full-on comic-book capers. Back to the sweet spot; it sustains its place as a full-on favourite.

It’s not too comical and not too adult so everybody’s happy. It’s a world where Buck narrowly escapes death on a number of occasions: poor organisation/insufficient storage options see a bowling ball fall on his unprotected pate and he remains unharmed. Phew! At the film’s denouement, a swinging door hits Buck so hard that the audience hears cartoon birds tweeting on his behalf, but minutes later he’s good to go. Just don’t try this at home, kids.

When it’s not being slapstick, it’s just being plain silly. A case in point is Buck’s (clap off, clap on) clapper. Not only is it a handy gadget for the lazy or the infirm, but this particular model also turns the lights on across the whole neighbourhood. Including burglar and car alarms. Why? How? It doesn’t matter. The Russells’ dog gets shut in the tumble dryer all day long? Don’t think about it too much.

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Don’t give the Director of Photography’s choices too much thought either. Camera angle is often effectively employed to provide the viewer with a certain perspective. A low camera-angle to suggests a difference in stature; a shot peering through a window implies spying; a dog licking a fish-eyed lens in extreme close up connotes that the audience is the character’s bottom. Wait, what?

That’s right. When neighbour Marcie Dahlgren-Frost (Laurie Metcalfe) isn’t getting complemented on her hyphen, she’s perving on Buck during laundry day. Man’s best friend has got different ideas though, and gives her a good licking. For some strange reason, the audience gets to experience it from a first-person perspective. Why? Nope. No idea here. But it makes you want to start using mouthwash more often.

An enormous part of the appeal for many, is that Uncle Buck is none more 90s. Okay, so it was released in the UK just four months into the actual 1990s, but it perfectly encapsulates that decade without getting too heavy-handed with the MC Hammer pants. It not only features Candy’s penultimate great comedy role (pre-Cool Runnings), but also Culkin’s rise to fame and John Hughes’ last great directorial effort.

Uncle Buck does away with the traditional heavy metal music that soundtracks wayward movie teens, instead usurped by hip hop as the rebellious youth’s music du jour. Despite the fact that the youth all look like extras in an INXS video. This shift was exemplified by Tone Loc’s Wild Thing and Bust A Move by the err… Hollywood Soundtrack Band. Earworms, one and all.

Unsurprisingly and sadly, it’s not all comfortable 90s nostalgia. Even in a film which blurs truth and fiction in such a way, the fact that Buck can walk into a US Elementary school unchallenged is a stark reminder of how much has changed in nearly 30 years. I know, I know, ‘it’s only a film’, but still. Add to that the backfiring car (which used gunfire to heighten the effect) and the school pick-up leaves a bad taste in the mouth rather than a laugh.

Thankfully, the comedy hasn’t aged as badly as the context; Uncle Buck’s genuinely funny and that’s all down to Uncle Buck himself. Although there were casting doubts about Candy being able to bring an edge to the role, those doubts are put to rest when it becomes evident that Buck could eff you up if he wanted to. With or without a hatchet.

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Arguably, he is just John Candy playing John Candy, but that can only be a good thing, right? He jumps from skit to skit, creating memorable comedy moments en route. Take Buck trying to negotiate a row of knee-high urinals at the kids’ pre-school, or Miles’ consecutive quick-fire questions about Buck’s dubious employment status. Come to think of it, these are more than just memorable moments; these are comedy classics, endlessly quotable and downright gif-able.

It’s not just the funnies that make this arguably John Candy’s greatest showing. It’s the feels. The redemptive narrative arc sees Buck finally reject bachelorhood in favour of his newly-discovered love of being a family man. It’s enough to make you want to reach for the slippers, get a (re)mortgage and be tucked up in bed by ten. That final freeze frame goes for the gut too: Buck’s knowing wave at his teenage former nemesis may as well be accompanied with an epitaph.

Thankfully though, shortly after the fade, the slightly saccharine sentimentality is lost and instead you’re left with memories of Buck tripping over his words in the wart-wearing head-mistress’ office. “Melanoma Head’s comin’!”

Admit it. You’re doing the air quotes aren’t you?