The Casual Other: Behind Minor John Hughes

Great OutdoorsJohn Hughes’ rise has been well documented. Before directing, he worked primarily as a screenwriter, having made his name by writing of an incident in his childhood (as “Vacation, ’56” in its original form).  After attracting the attention of National Lampoon’s, the project changed from a nostalgia-retro piece (a popular genre, with Happy Days still on at primetime) into a contemporary Chevy Chase vehicle that needs no more description. Hughes then wrote a script about a stay-at-home dad (his situation at the time) that became Mr. Mom. He conceived The Breakfast Club as a minimalistic piece, limited to one set, with hopes of making the relatively cheap production his directorial debut. Though Sixteen Candles came about first, and the rest is 1980s pop history.

While Hughes investigated the teen scene, he continued to script projects for others to direct. In these films he essentially returns to the conceit of Vacation – a not-so-straight-man who looks alright next to a real loony. Hughes employs The Other to present his ironic hero as the norm. What looks like an ordinary hero-counterforce setup from the outset is actually an artificial pairing. Clark Griswold is a grown child, who loves his kids’ computer games and the hot chicks that pass him by. He also gets snared in the kind of ordeals only dangerous to teenagers. It takes cousin Eddie to make Clark the norm. In the first film of the series the latter has a brief but memorable appearance. Though it’s telling that Hughes brought back Eddie as an extended presence – a more grounded Other – in Christmas Vacation. In this film Eddie is the poorer half to Clark, who’s solidly upper middle class, with a Chicago office job, even though seemingly able to screw up a peanut butter sandwich without the wife’s help. The film cynically uses socioeconomic status to regulate Clark as a contrast to the mobile-home dweller who crashes a pristine sprawl McMansion.

In the Hughes-written and directed film She’s Having a Baby the swinging Alec Baldwin enters to make Kevin Bacon’s lead, with an urge to cheat, safe for such a sweet premise. (Both seem well off, since Bacon’s character has made it as an advertising copywriter.) Under the guise of the classic straight-man/funny-man conceit, the same binary appears, to some extent, in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Dutch. Hughes’ Uncle Buck makes the lead (John Candy) down-and-(spiritually not)-out in contrast to the father, who leaves his kids with the eponymous character. The Hughes-scripted The Great Outdoors makes the rough-at-the-edges lead Candy okay when next to his snobby in-law (Dan Aykroyd), a not-so-welcomed guest on the rural trip. At the onset it seems that Candy, as in Uncle, plays the lower class half. Yet, by the film’s end we learn that the in-law is actually broke, essentially Cousin Eddie in disguise. Hughes falls back on class inequality to underscore Candy’s normalcy. Hardly made strange and foreign (Cousin Eddy, notwithstanding), the Hughes Other is part of the fabric, the guy next door. He’s a convenient neighbor for a pop-manchild.

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