Judge Erich Asperschlager always keeps a hatchet in his trunk. You know, just in case.
"You should see the toast. I couldn't even get it through the door."
It was great to be a kid in the 1980s. Cartoons were better, breakfast cereals were packed with sugar and cool prizes, and, thanks to a movie ratings system that had not yet caught up with the moral majority, any movie rated higher than G came with the guarantee of grin-inducing potty talk. While The Goonies is the most often-cited example of the PG-rated swearfest, plenty of other movies matched it. Even otherwise family friendly comedies like 1989's Uncle Buck featured pre-teen actors taking the Lord's name in vain for a laugh.
Uncle Buck's '80s pedigree goes beyond the loose language. It pairs comedy heavyweight John Candy with writer/director John Hughes—their third collaboration in as many years after Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and The Great Outdoors (written by Hughes, but directed by Howard Deutch). Uncle Buck may not stand up to the former—the lack of Steve Martin might have something to do with that—but it fits right in among the kind of mid-level '80s movies largely forgotten by all but the most nostalgic. It is for those nostalgic children of the decade of greed that Uncle Buck hits Blu-ray. I'd say "finally," but who's been waiting for Uncle Buck on Blu-ray?
Facts of the Case
Miles (Macaulay Culkin, Home Alone), Maizy (Gaby Hoffmann, Volcano), and Tia Russell are a trio of unhappy kids whose upwardly mobile parents have moved them away from family and friends to find better jobs in the suburbs of Chicago. Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly, Mr. Holland's Opus), in particular, has turned all of her adolescent anger on her largely absent parents, especially her mother, Cindy (Elaine Bromka, Days of Our Lives). The daily struggle is interrupted when their grandfather has a heart attack, forcing Cindy and her husband Bob (Garrett M. Brown, Lucas) to find someone who can stay with the kids on short notice. After everyone else turns them down, Bob asks his slob of a brother, Buck (John Candy) for help. Buck uses the babysitting gig as an excuse to avoid taking a job working for his long-time, and long-suffering, girlfriend Chanice (Amy Madigan, Field of Dreams), and heads out into the suburbs, where he faces new challenges that include cooking, cleaning, avoiding the advances of a bored housewife (Laurie Metcalf, Roseanne), and battling an angry high school girl who hates him even more than her parents.
Uncle Buck is better than it has any right to be. Its basically one plot contrivance after another, all designed to put the inexperienced Buck in charge of kids he has no idea how to take care of, and who don't really want him there in the first place. Will he have a difficult time adjusting to suburban parenthood? Yep. Will the commitment issues with his girlfriend that we see in the first half play an important role later on? Uh huh. Will the eternally pissed off Tia—angry in that way only teenagers can be—have a change of heart before the end credits roll? You know it. Will a climactic crisis force Buck to choose between being an irresponsible slob and finally acting like an adult? I don't want to spoil the surprise, but yes.
Uncle Buck hits every story beat you'd expect, and yet it works not only as a comedy, but as a movie with believable relationships. Much of the credit for the film's comedic success goes to John Candy, who plays Buck as more underdog than goofball. Despite his inexperience with kids, he ends up being a warmer caregiver than Tia, Maizy, and Miles' inattentive parents. He sticks up for Maizy when a nasty assistant principal criticizes her daydreaming, and he makes Miles's birthday breakfast one for the ages, thanks to a snow shovel spatula and a stack of gargantuan pancakes.
Most of the film's laughs stem from Buck's unique style of housekeeping—microwaving clothes when he can't work the dryer, for example—but even with the slapstick and sight gags, Candy gives an understated performance. He plays to the strengths of other actors (especially the kids) in a way that belies his improv roots. Some of his funniest scenes are with Macaulay Culkin—not yet the breakout star of Home Alone, but every bit as precocious.
Hughes's reputation for writing believable characters comes through occasionally, most notably in Tia and Buck's adversarial relationship. Although Jean Louisa Kelly doesn't have much to do besides snarl and pout, she and Buck engage in entertaining generational warfare. They argue about everything from breakfast to bowling with the family instead of going out with her sleazy boyfriend—a high school lothario named "Bug" (played by '80s Disney movie mainstay Jay Underwood). Buck's efforts to protect Tia's innocence range from not-so-subtle threats (many of which I plan on using when my own daughter reaches dating age) to blowing off a big score at the racetrack to bring her home. The Bug subplot may be as manufactured as the rest of the conflict in the movie, but the scene where he finally gets his comeuppance is still hugely satisfying.
Less satisfying is the film's Blu-ray transfer. The hi-def upgrade is most noticeable in the interior scenes, which have a good amount of detail. Other scenes don't look much better than DVD. Wide exterior shots, especially, suffer from over-sharpening and edge enhancement. Black levels are decent, but a far cry from the best the format has to offer. In short, another half-hearted catalog release. Despite sounding clear and well-balanced, the audio is even less impressive, with nothing but a lazy DTS 2.0 mix. There are no extras, unless you count the DVD and digital copies of the movie.
There's nothing particularly unique about Uncle Buck. It's a by-the-numbers family film with just enough at stake to draw in the audience without ever putting any of the characters in real danger. Heck, even the grandfather who has a heart attack pulls through. In the modern world of gross-out comedies and teen vampires, there's not much room for this kind of throwback. But for those of us who remember a simpler time when oil-burning cars were funny and kids said the "S"-word, Uncle Buck scratches an itch. Johns Candy and Hughes aren't at the top of their game, but they ooze just enough talent to help this movie rise to the top of the middle of the pack.
Uncle Buck is a fun slice of '80s nostalgia with a mediocre Blu-ray release. Not guilty.
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