Uncle Buck (1989)

Director: John Hughes

Starring: John Candy, Jean Louisa Kelly, Macaulay Culkin, Gaby Hoffman, Amy Madigan, Jay Underwood, Laurie Metcalf

A favorite of mine since I was a kid, “Uncle Buck” has taken on a whole new meaning in the last few years. Now a man in my early thirties, I have grown closer to the age of the main character and, like him, I have since become an uncle. If any part of my life hasn’t turned out as I expected, much of that is made up of things I could have changed (or still could). On the list of things I could not have anticipated, the best of all of them is the magic of unclehood. Loving these kids as I do, I want to be their best friend. I want them to experience things I never did or could. Most of all, I want to watch as they grow in to the amazing adults I know they will be someday. I would be failing in my responsibilities as their uncle if I felt otherwise. This, to me, is what the core of “Uncle Buck” is all about.

Buck Russell (John Candy) is a 40-year old Chicago native who has a nasty habit of taking the easy way out in life. He doesn’t have a job, instead choosing to base his entire yearly income on the winnings produced by fixed horse races. Buck is unmarried and without children, although his on again/off again girlfriend of eight years, Chanice (Amy Madigan), would like very much to fill the roles of both wife and mother. Buck’s involvement in his brother Bob’s family has been minimal. His sister-in-law Cindy dislikes him so much that she has folded the edge of her wedding photo that includes Buck, just so she won’t have to look at him or acknowledge that he exists. He hasn’t even seen them since they moved from Indianapolis to Chicago, not since before the births of their two younger children. What he can remember of their first child, Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly) is that the two of them had a healthy relationship. That was before Tia became a teenager with a chip on her shoulder.

One night, the Russell household is shaken by the news that Cindy’s father has suffered a heart attack. Quickly, Bob and Cindy make plans to drive up to Indianapolis, minus the kids. The idea being that all three have school that should not be interrupted. Feeling insulted, Tia takes this as a sign of parental abandonment. When the usual list of preferred babysitters turns up nothing, Buck is called upon as a last resort. The morning after, Tia and Buck begin a game of one-upmanship that will last almost the entire duration of Buck’s stay. This grows to include and indeed focus in on Tia’s relationship with a boy who goes by the name of Bug (Jay Underwood), a young man with only one thing on his mind and the will to prey upon unsuspecting girls like Tia to get it. Buck instantly recognizes this trait because it reminds him of what he was like at that age.

While trying to save Tia from the hole she’s been digging for herself, it slowly dawns on Buck that he hasn’t exactly been the best role model. Sure, he has shown nothing but love and affection for his brother’s kids while he’s been looking after them and has taken an interest in all that they say and do, but what has Buck done to make his own life any better? Taking shortcuts and living vicariously through others is not enough to make it in this world. The resources for a better life are all there for the taking. Buck has only lacked the motivation to reach out and grab a firm hold on them. Many of John Hughes’ comedies have presented their adult characters as self-involved, dimwitted, and otherwise incapable of relating to their youthful counterparts. “Uncle Buck” stands as one of the few where Hughes gives us an adult who not only understands where the kids are coming from when no one else will, but shows enough potential for growth on his own that the experience may even help to change him for the better.

Had I been asked when this movie was first released which of the three actors portraying the Russell children I thought had the best chance at stardom, I would have said Jean Louisa Kelly without missing a beat. Kelly’s honest and powerful portrayal of the rebellious Tia shows her to have been John Candy’s equal, a feat that was nearly impossible to pull off. The two spend so much of the movie at odds that, when it comes time for Kelly to show that Tia finally understands Buck and feels remorse for her treatment of him, we as the audience share the raw emotion. Of course, “Uncle Buck” was followed the next year by the smash hit “Home Alone” …also a John Hughes script… and Macaulay Culkin became a star overnight. Culkin does well as Tia’s brother Miles, and is actually much better here than in either “Home Alone” or its sequel, but still does not stand out as much as his older “Uncle Buck” co-stars.

Gone but never forgotten is John Candy. Although he left us far too soon, his films have stood the test of time. Ever the lovable oaf, my favorite movie in which he appears is and will always be “Spaceballs,” Mel Brooks’ parody of “Star Wars” and other sci-fi films. However, among Candy’s movies in which he was the star, none quite compare to “Uncle Buck.” This one has held up over the years and, I would argue, has improved with age. If it shows up on television, I’ll watch especially for the scene in which Buck has his meeting with the vice principal of the elementary school. In this scene, he tells her exactly what should be told to anyone who dares to call themselves an educator while failing to recognize a child’s potential. Maybe it is the product of Buck’s own past dealings with teachers/principals, but his strong words get the point across and show how ready for parenthood he is, even if he doesn’t see it himself.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    I really love the job you have done on this review, Chuck. You show absolute insight into the character of Buck and nail all the reasons why this little movie is such a classic gem.

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