by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
Almost every genre of film contains at least one auteur that mixed up typical conventions and pushed them towards new heights that forever altered the face of cinema. Alfred Hitchcock brought grand psychological and technical depths to suspense thrillers while Sam Peckinpah highlighted gritty ambiguities and hostility in the American Western. One filmmaker who definitely fits this ideal is John Hughes, a highly influential writer-producer-director who spearheaded progressive elevations in teenage comedies and drama. While the teen genre found its origins in dimwitted irrelevance, Hughes brought a refreshing dignity, maturity, and wit to youthful stories and teen movies have tried to follow his example ever since.
When the news broke that John Hughes had passed away on August 6th, 2009 from a heart attack, your mind almost automatically recalls how seminal his work was in creating the teen genre as we now know it. Before John Hughes, teenagers mostly found their way on the big screen by way of raunchy sex comedies and cheesy slasher flicks. Hughes was more interested in the everyday plights they endure in the face of high school politics and tense domestic situations. He was canny in the way he captured the angst and feelings of the general American teenager, crafting films that we’re enormously sympathetic to youthful audiences everywhere. While he may have created juvenile archetypes that would appear hopelessly cliché in future films, rarely has a filmmaker brought such touching depths and hilarious insights to them like he did. Almost all of his films took place in his native home of Chicago and he is widely credited as discovering the teenage talents of the 80s referred to as the Brat Pack, a troupe which consisted of Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Andrew McCarthy, and many others.
Besides teen pictures, an examination of Hughes’ entire filmography reveals that he dabbed in a wide range of genres and subjects with characters of all ages. He’s written and produced consistently for romantic comedies, effects romps, family fare, slapstick comedies, and domestic dissections. In honor of Hughes’ rich and inspiring career, I’ve highlighted significant and overlooked films in both his directing and screenwriting endeavors that are not to be missed by any cinephile:
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
It was Hughes’ third screenplay (after National Lampoon’s Class Reunion and Mr. Mom) and he was already proving to have a wonderful ear for the everyday plights and chemistry of the American family unit. Vacation is a movie of endless hilarity, one that cleverly pulls bruising humor from family tensions on a road trip. Almost anyone who’s ever been on a family trip can sympathize strongly with the events on screen, events that are played to side-splitting comic extremes. This is strongly felt in Chevy Chase’s priceless monologue about his “quest” to complete the ultimate family vacation. The script serves as a wonderful display of Hughes’ talents for fusing great truths with sharp humor.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
It was the film that launched Molly Ringwald’s career and announced Hughes’ major new presence in a major new genre. With her short red hair and freckles, Ringwald wasn’t your typical teen beauty queen, but her deep romantic yearnings and intelligent observations made her instantly to-die-for. In telling the story of a teenage girl having the worst birthday of her life, Hughes and Ringwald brought a fresh and observant look into the life of a teenage girl that had rarely been seen in movies before. While most female teen characters had been portrayed as sex objects, Ringwald blew stereotypes out of the water with her inner desires, fears, and musings being allowed to lay bare on the silver screen.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
What happens when you lock a brain (Anthony Michael Hall), an athlete (Emilio Estevez), a basket case (Ally Sheedy), a princess (Ringwald), and a criminal (Judd Nelson) in a room together? You get the pure cinematic embodiment of teenage angst. In telling the story of a group of wildly different high school students forced to endure a Saturday detention together, Hughes introduced high school archetypes we’d see in film time and time again. Yet he dissected their inner-psychology and deepest ideals in a surprisingly penetrating way that Hollywood has tried to duplicate ever since. The film not only catapulted the fresh faces of the Brat Pack to new heights but also marked a self-conscious turning point for the teen genre. When Entertainment Weekly named the film the Best High School Movie ever made, there were very few arguments opposing it.
It seems highly improbable that sci-fi fantasy and teenage honesty could co-exist in the same movie, but Weird Science proves it can be quite the winning combination. The film follows two high school losers (Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) who set out to create their dream woman with the assistance of computer technology. What they get is Lisa (Kelly LeBrock), a sexpot genie who uses her magical powers to fulfill the boys’ dreams and give them one of the wildest weekends the big screen has ever seen. Despite the effects-heavy theatrics, the film still wonderfully exemplifies Hughes gift for the hilarious and the touching. Hall’s drunken imitation of a bluesman and the boys’ run-in with a bizarre biker gang are still wildly uproarious scenes and Oingo Boingo’s main theme is still a fun and likeable dance tune. As our teen heroes go from hormonal geeks to sensitive young men in the course of a single weekend, we’re utterly surprised by how convinced we are by the film’s sincerity.
It seemed here that Hughes’ script was playing off of the ancient plot of the poor girl who falls for the nice rich boy, but it proved to be an effective outlet for thoughtful teenage revelations. The film once again saw Ringwald in the role of a sensitive everygirl who pines for the class hunk, this time a popular rich kid played by Andrew McCarthy. Although it feels like one of Hughes’ more lightweight efforts, it still proved to be a knowing portrait of the typical high school caste system, in which kids from different cliques and classes mingle and clash with each other on a daily basis. If nothing else, the film serves as a wonderful memento for celebrated 80s trends and music that dominated the era. Those who recall the film remember strongly Ringwald’s wildly creative and pink-drenched stylings along with the cherished new wave track “If You Leave” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
Hughes’ single best work and Matthew Broderick’s single best performance, this teen comedy became an unlikely masterpiece of feel-good optimism. Broderick stars in the title role as Ferris Bueller, a charming and popular high school rogue who skips school to take his depressed best friend and lovely girlfriend on an epic day trip to Chicago. The character of Ferris stands with Marty McFly as one of the coolest teenage creations to ever grace the silver screen. While most teenage characters come across as immature or inadequate, Bueller’s smoldering confidence, nailed with winning conviction by Broderick, was endlessly refreshing. Hughes, a big fan of The Beatles, modeled the film’s tone after the spirit of A Hard Day’s Night, and his film has the earlier one’s same appealing sense of zestful, energetic fun (Ferris is an obvious soul brother of John Lennon, apparent when he lip-syncs to The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”). Critic Richard Roeper once referred to this film as an “anti-suicide film” and the film truly earns that unlikely title. For as Ferris’ best friend Cameron sinks into hopelessness and self-loathing, he is taught by our swaggering hero that liberating yourself from the mundane and finding the grand joy in life’s simple pleasures is the best way to live life.
Hughes’ screenplay here might have been one of his more watered-down teen efforts, but it inspired some of the most tact and touching performances of any of his works. The film is basically Pretty in Pink with the gender roles reversed: a poor and artsy high school student (Eric Stoltz) pines for a rich hottie (Lea Thompson) while his quirky best friend (Mary Stuart Masterson) harbors secret feelings for him. While it’s not as trendy or colorful as Pretty in Pink, it’s certainly more relaxed and down-to-earth. The true interest in this film is watching gifted teen actors who’ve never worked with a Hughes script before deliver wonderful performances (especially Elias Koteas, doing a refreshing riff on the high school bully archetype). The film would mark Hughes’ final foray into the high school universe and it’s certainly an exceptional note to leave on.
After working within the world of teenage angst, Hughes decided to dabble once again in a story about an American family on vacation. This time, Hughes showed us what happens when two in-laws (John Candy and Dan Aykroyd) and their respective families clash in a lakeside resort area. Not only does this film pull some of the best work from its leading actors, but it paints a hysterically accurate portrait of vacationing in the big American wilderness. From kooky locals to wild animals, this film got just about everything right when it comes to suburbanites tackling the outdoors. Any family whose ever vacationed by a lake can sympathize greatly with the events in this film.
Uncle Buck (1988)
Almost every family has that one Uncle: that goofy, loser kind with a shabby lifestyle and shady background. Uncle Buck is like a backhanded love letter to Uncles like that everywhere. John Candy gives one of his best performances as the title character, a kind-hearted yet under-achieving slob who agrees to watch over his nieces and nephews while their parents are out of town. While it’s one of the more dysfunctional portraits of family life Hughes has displayed, he effectively conveys the nice message that sometimes it takes broken people to make us whole again. Yet Candy is the best reason to see this film, with almost everything he says and does in this film being comic gold.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
He showed us a family taking on the great American road trip, then he showed us a family taking on the great American wilderness, then Hughes solidified his mastery of American family tales by showing us the great American Christmas in all its essence. Christmas Vacation is one of the all-time great holiday movies, a film that shows the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to family gatherings at Christmas. Hughes’ script displayed a wonderful balance between cynical honesty and slapstick humor that future holiday films would fumble hopelessly with. From wrestling with Christmas trees to manic adventures in sleigh riding, almost everyone can see themselves and their relatives in this essential holiday romp.
Home Alone (1990)
An eight-year-old boy is left all alone to defend his house from two villainous thieves who wish to break in and wreak havoc. Although this sounds like quite the terrifying concept, John Hughes’ turned this idea into a screenplay of endless chuckles and created one of the highest grossing comedies of all time. Macaulay Culkin stars in one of the best child comic performances of all-time as Kevin, a child who is accidentally left behind after his elaborate family departs for a vacation in France. Pretty soon, he’s at a battle of wills with Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, who play what could be the definitive bumbling criminals of American cinema. The film is an extremely hilarious view of how an 8-year-old would conduct suburban life in complete isolation and there’s great fun to be had when Kevin stages elaborate traps for his would-be captors. Hughes’ script may have launched a peculiar sub-genre of smart kids who battle idiot grown-ups, but this work is most celebrated for being a family comedy that can honestly make people of all ages and all generations laugh endlessly.
Career Opportunities (1991)
What would it be like to be locked in a Target store for an entire night? A strange question, but one that John Hughes’ offbeat script for Career Opportunities delightfully answers. Frank Whaley stars as an astonishingly delusional small-town liar who takes a job as a night janitor at Target. He spends his first night shift playing with everything in the store until he makes the surprising discovery that the town babe (Jennifer Connelly) accidentally got herself locked in with him for the night. It’s not one of Hughes’ major scripts, but it’s nonetheless a unique meditation on small-town boredom and twenty-something angst. Plus I still fall into hysterics every time I watch Whaley tear through that Target and its products like his own personal playground!
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
How in God’s name do you make a sequel to Home Alone? What kind of family forgets their kid again? That film’s astronomical box office business made a sequel hopelessly inevitable and we were very blessed that John Hughes wrote one that was just as creative and adventurous as the first one. Hughes actually came up with an ingenious and exciting way to once again separate Kevin from his family and pit him against Pesci and Stern’s bumbling thieves: an airport mix-up places Kevin in New York City where his thieving enemies are plotting their next heist. We’ve seen New York City displayed wonderfully on the big screen before, but we never realized how fun and unique it would look through the eyes of a child (especially considering the gags that unfold in the Plaza Hotel). It’s a pretty accomplished feat that this sequel takes the formula from the first film and takes it to more humorous and exciting heights. I must also give serious credit to this film for introducing the Talkboy, which is probably the most enjoyable toy I ever possessed in my youth.
While his later works were heavily indulgent in slapstick and kitsch, almost nothing in Hughes’ filmography could overshadow his breakthrough revelations in the teen angst and family comedy genres. Although he would sometimes play up caricatures and overly self-conscious dialogue that would make Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith smile, there was always a consistent pulse of color and honesty through his films that separated his works from the mundane. Anytime you find yourself looking at smart teenagers or funny family vacations on the big screen, a debt of some kind is owed to Hughes. Looking back over Hughes’ filmography, you can’t help but think of one of his best quotes, one that also serves as the most important lesson to be learned in almost each of his films: “Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
To read my original article on the best Break-Up films ever made, check out http://thecinephilenewyork.blogspot.com/2008/06/top-5-break-up-films-of-all-time.html