(In French, On TV, December 2019) There’s one theory of comedy that states that it comes from the surprise of matching two disparate ideas, and if you agree with that then it’s easy to see why Cool Runnings is amusing even from its premise. What if tropical Jamaica decided to field a bobsled team at the Winter Olympics? It’s not that ridiculous a premise (Jamaica has often competed in the winter Olympics, albeit not competitively—but you can see how athletes can adapt their physical abilities to other sports if they can train where there’s ice and snow) but such nuances are not the kind of material that Cool Runnings goes for—it will spend the strict minimum amount of time to justify its premise (loosely inspired by real-life events) and no more. Far more of a comedy than a sports movie, this is not about the Jamaican team winning against impossible odds, but never giving up all the way to an honourable finish. Helmed according to a strictly competent formula by Jon Turteltaub, the film hits its targets and makes good use of its element. The Jamaican atmosphere is convincing, and the use of reggae music does pleasantly permeate the film. As a Canadian, I was surprisingly pleased by many specific elements of the film. True to its inspiration, it takes place at the 1988 Calgary Olympic games, leading to the curiously nostalgic sight of an old-school Coles airport bookstore. John Candy also stars as a disgraced coach in one of his last films, leading further Canadian credentials to the results. While Cool Runnings is very much in the safe mainstream comedy film tradition, it does everything right, is funny when it counts and has the good sense to go for uplifting underdog inspiration as its climax. Not a great film, but one that can be watched easily enough by the entire family.
(On TV, June 2019) There are a few movies out there that seem to spring from near-universal experiences, at which point the screenwriter adds nearly everything that could go wrong in such a situation and call it a day. At least that’s the feeling I get from watching Summer Rental, a typical mid-1980s comedy featuring John Candy as a father of a family headed to Florida for the summer. What initially looks like an idyllic rental location turns out to be a nightmare compounded by everything else going badly once settled in. They get into arguments, make local enemies and eventually find themselves in a third act sea racing set-piece because there’s got to be more to a script than simply a string of humiliations. It’s clearly a summer comedy, light to the point of being insubstantial. It is strung together by John Candy’s comic ability, although if you want something similar but better you don’t have to look very far for 1987’s very similar The Great Outdoors also featuring Candy. Summer Rental will do nicely if ever you’re bored out of your skull and it’s the only choice available in a place without Internet connectivity, or are trying to complete the Candy filmography. Otherwise, well, there are better movies out there.
(On Cable TV, June 2019) As one of John Candy’s less-famous films in the middle of an extraordinarily productive decade, Armed and Dangerous often feels like mid-1980s comedy filmmaking at its laziest, with a workable premise battered through atonal development, fuzzy characterization, cheap plotting, and lazy writing. The premise does show some promise—as an ex-cop and a disbarred lawyer find themselves working as security guards, they come to discover a plot to embezzle union dues. Alas, the development of the premise feels off. I shouldn’t worry too much about the portrayal of a corrupt union, but I do—anti-union sentiment is symptomatic of 1980s Hollywood presumptions, and we now know where that path has led us. To be fair, Armed and Dangerous is dumb enough that it may not quite realize what it’s playing with, and does give equal credence to the idea of corrupt cops as well. The rest of the film isn’t much better—as the plot (already thin at 88 minutes) regularly stops to let Candy go on extended comic rants, it’s clear that the numerous screenwriters have no idea how to keep a consistent tone throughout the film: Candy’s character alone veers uncontrollably between incompetence, silliness and effectiveness in a way that suggests that Candy was allowed to run roughshod over what may have been a more coherent character. Other lazy plot shortcuts abound, including a final sequence with a truck driver blissfully unconcerned with the destruction of his rig—there’s a lot more comic mileage to be made out of this idea, but the film barely even tries. On and on it goes: Candy is up to his usual character, but the more interesting work is by Eugene Levy, turning in a character performance more interesting because it’s not quite part of his later persona. Meg Ryan looks cute, but that’s about it—anyone else could have done just as well. A welcome bit of vehicular mayhem does enliven the film’s last twenty minutes (albeit limited by the film’s average budget) but that’s not enough to make up for the rest of Armed and Dangerous.
(In French, On TV, April 2019) I know that a lot of people remember Splash fondly—on a surface level, what’s not to love? Perennial 1980s comedy young beau Tom Hanks falling in love with a Mermaid played by Daryl Hannah: isn’t that enough to many anyone happy? There’s a strong fairy-tale component to the result (despite a few moments with heightened threats) and it’s best to approach the film as such. Unfortunately, there’s a point where Splash doesn’t have a lot to differentiate it from other fish-out-of-water comedies, with a script that seems obvious and by the numbers. Fortunately, the execution isn’t bad (this being one of Ron Howard’s first efforts as a director and arguably his first big commercial success) and you can’t really ignore the mermaid aspect that still makes Splash a memorable film. Hanks is slightly subdued compared to some of his other comedies of that time, Darryl Hannah is fine as the mermaid that named thousands of Madisons and there’s an interesting Canadian connection with supporting roles given to John Candy and Eugene Levy. Still, I have a hard time getting enthusiastic about it all—there’s not a whole lot to say: it seems as if we’ve seen everything in there a few times since then.
(On TV, April 2019) When I say that The Great Outdoors is about taking a trip, it’s not necessarily in the way reflected by the plot of the film. Yes, sure, it’s superficially about two brothers and their families spending a week at a lake cabin, and the various tensions between the brothers playing themselves out. But in more significant ways to twenty-first century viewers, The Great Outdoors is a trip back in time, to an era with a very specific aesthetic when it comes to dumb comedies. Written by John Hughes, directed by Howard Deutch, starring John Candy and Dan Aykroyd, you can clearly associate the film with the mainstream of mid-to-late-1980s American comedies. For anyone on a steady diet of more modern films, it’s a different experience watching a dumb 1980s comedy, with its painfully obvious plotting, shot dumb gags and abandoned emotional arcs. (I’m not saying modern movies are smarter—but the stylistic conventions are different.) But dumb 1980s films can be reasonably fun, so if you can tolerate the expected gags and predictable third-act plot developments, the end result isn’t too bad—especially considering how The Great Outdoors does a lot of mileage on Candy and Aykroyd’s pure comic talents, with Candy as a goofy dad and Aykroyd as a fast-talking urbanite. (Meanwhile, Annette Bening’s screen debut here is probably an early shame considering her later body of work.) There are a few things I really liked—notably the use of “Yakety Yak” at the beginning of the film, and the very funny scenes featuring subtitled raccoon talk. The Great Outdoors is not a great film, but it does have an amiable quality to it: if nothing else, it’s not mean-spirited at all in showing some heartwarming family moments.
(Second viewing, On TV, May 2018) screenwriter/director John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a comedy classic for a reason—it makes great use of two comic actors (Steve Martin and John Candy), features a series of memorable sequences, plays on universal annoyances and doesn’t forget to add a little bit of sentiment toward the end to temper the comedy. Everyone can relate to uncontrollable delays and setbacks in trying to get home for the holidays, and Hughes pushes it to the limit in describing what else can happen to two harried travellers. (The film reaches a comic apex of sort during its fiery highway sequence.) Martin plays exasperated as well as Candy plays exasperator, and the result couldn’t be better. It’s not a complex film, and it works largely because of this straightforwardness. It’s worth another viewing every few thanksgivings.
(On TV, February 2018) Back when I grew up, my TV universe was limited to about half a dozen channels, most of which I couldn’t understand very well due to my lack of familiarity with English. So my childhood culture pretty much depended on the whims of those three French TV networks, and it so happens that Brewster’s Millions was a favourite of theirs. I must have watched it two or three times before I was 15. I still remember bits and pieces of the film in French, which made a contemporary re-watch feel really weird (especially one line which doesn’t sound too bad in French, but whose original version is unprintable on a G-rated web site). Fortunately, Richard Pryor sounds much better than his assigned French dubbed voice, and revisiting Brewster’s Millions in English was more pleasant than I expected. The premise alone is still rich in possibilities: An inheritance game in which the protagonist must voluntarily blow through thirty million dollars in thirty days. It’s harder than it looks, though, and the film’s best moments are those in which sure-fired money-losing plans backfire, and make things even harder. Otherwise, Pryor clowns around with John Candy, flirts with the lovely Lonette McKee and indulges in a lavish series of fantasies by wasting as much money as possible. It’s not, frankly, that good a movie: it’s slight, doesn’t really touch upon challenging social issues the way some of Pryor’s work as a comedian did, and the entire plot is an exercise in contrived situations. Still, I had a good time revisiting Brewster’s Million, and it remains a mildly entertaining evening watch. It may be ripe for a remake, though…
(On TV, June 2017) Wikipedia tells me that Uncle Buck has, in the years since its release, become something of a cult movie. As usual, this kind of statement either resonates or is met by a blank face. In my case, imagine the blank face: While it’s not a bad movie, Uncle Buck doesn’t always know what it wants to be. The title character is alternately goofy, dangerous, serious and incompetent in short succession. The film has a solid arc, but the sketches that fill out the progression of this arc are inconsistent and seem to vary according to the whims of writer/director John Hughes more than any organic progression. To be fair, Uncle Buck does coasts a long time on the charm of John Candy and many of Hughes’s leitmotifs, starting with the sullen teenager in need of guidance (here Jean Louisa Kelly). It’s also easy to see how Home Alone sprang from Uncle Buck with the “mail slot” scene featuring Mackauley Caulkin. Some of the set-pieces are, indeed, quite good (such as the noir-spoof visit to the school director) … but it’s their disconnectedness that stops the film from feeling more satisfying. In the meantime, what we have is another piece in Hughes’s solid filmography, uneven but still entertaining on its own.