Even hardened John Hughes veterans have turned up their noses at 1988’s The Great Outdoors, and understandably so. Having pretty much invented the 80’s teen genre with Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and more, Hughes seemed to lose direction, and focused on writing funny if lowbrow scripts for the National Lampoon and Home Alone series. The Great Outdoors somehow fuses all of the above together into one unwieldy package. Yes, it’s a comedy about families on vacation, yes, it’s got physical pratfalls and naughty children, and there’s even some teen romance thrown in. Yet neglected as it may be, The Great Outdoors made over $40 million in the US, and pretty much nothing elsewhere. Scholars of the future may ask; why?
Handing the reins to regular collaborator Howie Deutch, Hughes fashions a sit-com level scenario. Chester ‘Chet” Ripley (John Candy) takes his family to a cabin at a lakeside resort, and his bother in law Roman (Dan Aykroyd) brings his wife (a frizzy debut from Annette Benning) and her twin girls to join them. Ripley is thrown by Roman’s ostentatious twit-wealth and Mercedes, and after various misadventures, is horrified when he realises that his brother-in-law’s intent is to flog him some dodgy investments. Meanwhile, the myth of a deadly grizzly-bear offers a latent threat, but also an opportunity for Chet’s redemption.
While there are a few horrible missteps here (notably the guy repeatedly hit by lightning), there’s also a few nuggets hidden away amongst the water-skiing pratfalls. Almost like an adult version of The Breakfast Club, Chet and Roman’s conflict brings them both down a few notches, but only by accepting and acknowledging their own failures can the find their own true direction. And while their theme music is kind of sappy, the tentative summer romance between Chet’s son Buck (Chris Young) and local girl Cammie (Lucy Deakins) is expressed with far more delicacy than might be expected from their first pool-room encounter. It’s an all-American film, but takes time to make pot-shots at the difference between that dream and reality.
Any film that makes a running joke of having subtitled racoons regularly turn the cabin upside down in their search for food isn’t taking itself too seriously, and yet The Great Outdoors offers surprising depth and social commentary. Roman eventually admits that he’s a fraud, and that he’s been manipulating Chet with a fake anecdote that guilt-trips Chet into writing a cheque. Slapstick doesn’t need this kind of extra dimension, but Hughes seems unable to stop himself from adding such notes in the margin. The Great Outdoors may have seem crude at the time, but its reputation has grown as a character comedy, and with two strong comic performances at the centre, it’s an agreeable lazy watch, even just for the impromptu dance-party at the end. And to conclude, I note that even in the face of a worldwide pandemic, Toronto declared Oct 30th 2020 national John Candy day, and I’m here for that AND totally down with that.