Back, once again, to the oeuvre of John Hughes comedies. Although Hughes didn’t direct this 1988 film — Howard Deutch did — he wrote the script, and it’s easy to recognize his hand in its creation. Throw in John Candy and Dan Aykroyd as the lead characters, and it’s a shoe-in that I’d be checking this movie out.
The Great Outdoors is one of those films that I have, technically, seen before. At least partly. I can remember it playing in the VCR at a family friend’s house when I was a child. But, as was so often the case when I was a child, I only watched bits and pieces of it as I ran around the place. I remember everybody laughing, and I remember thinking it was funny when I stopped to watch it. But I only really remembered the scene with the bear (it’s the sort of thing that leaves an impression on a ten year old). So, as a film lost to the fog of easily-distracted youth, I had to check it out again as an adult.
Your typical rustic vacation home, with your typical excessive decorations to impress the city folk.
Candy stars as Chet Ripley, simple Chicago family man taking his family on vacation up to the lake where he and his wife Connie (Stephanie Faracy) spent their honeymoon. His sons Buck and Ben (Chris Young and Ian Giatti) seem a bit less than impressed with the “great outdoors”, but he’s hoping to change that after they have some experiences in the woods. He’s open, enthusiastic, and honest, and despite the initial reluctance of his kids, they’re a tight-knit family and eager to have some fun.
Shortly after arriving, however, the Ripleys get a surprise — their in-laws, the Craigs. Roman (Aykroyd) has decided to surprise his brother-in-law and family with a visit, and they’ll be spending the week with them at the cabin. And so, of course, the comedy ensues, with the Craigs being just irritating enough to get under Chet’s skin. Roman is brash, arrogant, and a Wall Street broker for whom money and the big deal have been the driving force of his life. Connie’s sister Kate (Annette Bening, in her film debut) is mousy and withdrawn, but not above putting in a cheap shot when she gets the chance. And their twin daughters Kara and Mara (Hilary and Rebecca Gordon) are just a bit odd, giving a good impression of the kids in the hall in The Shining. But despite the eccentricities of his family, Chet reluctantly embraces their visit, as they are family, after all.
One big possibly-happy family.
It’s not hard to see Hughes’s influence on the film. Swap John Candy for Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd for Randy Quaid, and tweak a few details, and this could easily be “Camping Vacation”. Chet has a lot in common with Clark Griswold, even down to trying to give his sons a taste of the experiences he had a child. And the obnoxious relatives fit right in with the Vacation films. Of course, there’s also some of the odd-couple bickering and bantering between Chet and Roman that reminds one a bit of Planes Trains and Automobiles. And, as with that film, neither character is really “the good guy” or “the bad guy”. Chet is open, loving… but easily rattled and a bit short-tempered. He lets Roman get to him more easily than he should, even allowing for Roman’s brash nature. Roman is inconsiderate, tacky… but is self-aware enough of his failings to have some admiration for those areas in which Chet has it together and Roman doesn’t. At one point he asks his wife, “Why do Chet’s kids look at him like he’s Zeus and my kids look at me like I’m a rack of lawn tools at Sears?”, and even as he ignores her answer to try and broker a business deal, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him.
The film isn’t as well-beloved as some others of its lineage, and it seems it didn’t get a great critical reception when it was released. It’s not hard to see why, in all honesty. It’s essentially a random events plot once all the principal characters are introduced, with the script going from one gag to the other. The subtitled raccoon sequences stick out as being a bit odd (though I liked them), and the romance plot between Buck and a local girl (Lucy Deakins) seems rather detached from everything else. But even if the script is going from one gag to the next, it’s all right; the gags are funny, and I laughed out loud several times throughout the film. Even the one gag I remembered still had me laughing when it happened. And there’s just enough depth to the characters’ relationships to give them an air of believability and to create audience sympathy for what’s happening to them, which is vital to any comedy. As tiresome as Roman can be, he’s still a pretty likeable on the whole. And Chet is easy to sympathize with. And when the audience cares about the characters, they laugh when the characters have to deal with things.
It may not be the best film to come out of John Hughes’s pen, but it’s still a pretty good film.