I’m Your Uncle Buck: The Low-Key Career Path of John Candy

I saw Wagons East! in the theater during its short run. I used to ride the bus down to the comic book store every Saturday, and if I had any money left over, I’d catch a matinee up the block. This week, I set that part of my allowance aside in advance. I got there a half-hour early as was my custom, but I was the only person in the theater. It was a major bummer, for a number of reasons. I knew the film had been roundly panned by critics and was tanking at the box office, but this was John Candy’s final film we were talking about. I didn’t care if it sucked, it was going to be my last chance to see the big lug up there on the screen. Still, even during that final shot of Candy’s character riding off into the sunset, I was too depressed to even feel depressed.

Two years later, Martin Knelman published Laughing on the Outside: The Life of John Candy. The book is not horrible, but it does feel a bit rushed at times and eager to make connections that seem fairly vague, assertions of a darker side to the man. Kind of a less mean-spirited version of Bob Woodward’s Wired. One thing the book discusses, though, which sounds accurate to me is just exactly why John Candy appeared in so many awful, awful films.

Generally speaking, there is almost always something needy about performers, a drive to be understood or at least accepted by large numbers of people. I think John Candy’s career speaks to this: the guy obviously had a hard time saying no. But even though he did about as many bad movies as he did good ones, it is exactly this eagerness to please which makes the man’s work so endearing. If he was a less talented man or less charming, this may have come off as pathetic (insert your favorite reality-TV star here). But if there was one thing John Candy possessed by the truckload, it was talent and charisma, and there simply was no other path his career could have taken.

From his earliest supporting roles, one would have little trouble guessing Candy was going to be a household name one way or the other. 1941 is as bloated and overdone as anything else Steven Spielberg has done, even if it looked good on paper. But even if the movie is pretty unsuccessful in general, there are plenty of scenes the principals end up saving. Toshiro Mifune was a force of nature, as he was in everything he did. Dan Aykroyd easily bats it out of the park whenever he’s given an intel assessment sort of role, a guy who can rattle off stats, facts, or measurements. And of course, John Candy was the likeable lug, the soldier who should have given the recruitment office a wide berth.

Sadly, most of Candy’s part ended up on the cutting room floor, but at least he got to tackle that sort of role again in Stripes. And as in Blues Brothers, Candy comes off as likeable not just because he’s a big boy with an easy smile. It’s because he knows exactly where he is, and where he is over his head most of the time. Towards the end of Stripes, when the platoon goes into Czechoslovakia to rescue Winger and Ziskey and is captured, the Ox is the first one to hand over his rifle: “Here you go. There you go. Hand ‘em out there, boys. There you go.”

It was this ability of Candy’s, to be eager without being pathetic, that led to his two most significant break-out roles: the beleaguered security guard, Laskey, in National Lampoon’s Vacation, and the oversexed Freddie Bauer, Tom Hanks’ character’s brother in Splash. Vacation signaled the beginning of Candy’s collaborations with John Hughes, which I’ll get to shortly. And Splash was a watershed movie for just about everyone involved: it established Ron Howard as a director, Brian Grazer as a producer, and Tom Hanks as a leading man. But most importantly, it finally gave Candy a fitting showcase for his talents as a supporting actor, a large enough role for him to really display his talents. Try imagining somebody like Jim Belushi throwing change on the ground so he can look up women’s skirts.  You can’t do it without being creeped out, at the very least. I have my doubts that even Bill Murray could have pulled that off, but Candy played that part so well that all of America wanted to hang out with him.

And yet here is where his career begins to dip. 1985 saw three more major motion picture roles for Candy.  In Brewster’s Millions and Volunteers, Candy all but reprises his Splash character, if a little less pervy, and to no great shakes. He’s still a lot of fun to watch in those flicks, but the films themselves don’t hold up all too well. Carl Reiner’s Summer Rental was Candy’s first leading role since the abominable 1983 film Going Beserk, which few saw anyway. Knelman details the rushed production of Summer Rental, which was shot in April and May and released in August. As Candy put it, “We didn’t even have enough time to spend the whole budget,” and it shows. It’s still a cute little movie, though, and it definitely proved that Candy was able to play a straight lead and still be funny, that he could do more than play sidekicks.

It’s at this point in Knelman’s book where I begin to take issue with his somewhat jaundiced eye on Candy’s career. 1986 was the year Armed and Dangerous was released, and Knelman more or less tags this film as the worst choice in Candy’s career thus far. He claims that die-hard fans may have been willing to overlook the tepidity of Brewster’s Millions or Volunteers, but even they could not let something as horrid as Armed and Dangerous slide. To which I can be heard to retort: “Oh, yeah?”

Granted, I have not seen Armed and Dangerous in at least twenty years. And granted, I was all of nine years old when the movie came out. But I was already a die-hard Candy fan, and I loved it, loved it, loved it. I found it not only funny, but there were all the car chases and gunfights the discerning 4th grader wants in his films. It’s a character actor smorgasbord, as well — Tiny Lister, Brion James, David Wohl, James Tolkan, and Robert goddamn Loggia. And it was the first time Candy and Eugene Levy were teamed up on-screen. Levy had parts in Going Beserk and Splash, but this was the first time the two really got to bounce off each other since the SCTV glory days. Again, perhaps I’m seeing this through the haze of nostalgia, but I remember it being as glorious as the best of SCTV broadcasts I used to watch on Nick at Nite back then.

And even if I’m wrong, even if Armed and Dangerous is an awful movie, Candy wanted to do this movie exactly because he wanted Levy in it. Knelman talks often about how Levy was struggling since the demise of SCTV, and Candy, as his best friend, was willing to sacrifice his career on this movie in order to give Levy a higher profile here in the States. This, more than anything, is what makes John Candy who he is. His best friend is having a hard time making a go of it, so Candy flexes the Hollywood muscles he’d been developing and gets Armed and Dangerous off the ground. So even if the movie tanked and is regarded as a hunk of garbage, that was the way it had to be.

It makes for a weird paradox. Candy was able to so effectively play sympathetic, charming guys because that’s who he was. He was able to build a career playing those roles. But then his career took it in the shins because his own sympathies guided him to questionable choices. That’s a bummer, but what if John Candy had been a raging egomaniac bastard? He wouldn’t have been able to build a career in the first place.

Fortunately, for himself and for all of us, Candy finally found a collaborator who knew exactly how to utilize his talents. Knelman takes former National Lampoon writer and sainted teen-film director John Hughes to task for being a one-, maybe two-trick pony. And this is a little hard to argue sometimes, especially in light of the Home Alone/Baby’s Day Out phase of the man’s career. Knelman basically dismisses Hughes as little more than a suburban-schmaltz merchant, and argues that Candy’s career was not going to work its way back to Splash proportions under Hughes’ wing. Again, maybe that’s true, but again, that was how it had to be.

In any of Hughes’ movies, there is almost always an overtly sentimental quality to them, and to me, this is no more obvious than it is in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Thing of it is, when people think of this movie, they don’t think of the hokey, somewhat ridiculous story. Whatever the script’s weaknesses, Hughes made what could be the most perfect casting decisions in film history with his two leads. Who else but Steve Martin could play such an uptight asshole of a guy whom the audience still wants to get home for the holidays? And who else but John Candy could play such a sad sack blabbermouth who can still bring the viewer to tears when it’s revealed his wife’s been dead this whole time? The answer should be obvious by now. John Candy, by all accounts, was a guy who could not say no to just about any job, no matter how bad it was. Finally, he found a job he could say yes to because it played to his exact professional and personal strengths.

Knelman writes off The Great Outdoors, which Hughes wrote but did not direct, as basically Planes, Trains and Automobiles in the woods. That is definitely an arguable stance, but it’s his opinion of Uncle Buck that proves to me just how out of touch the guy is with the subject of his own book. Again, I will grant there may be a generational bias here, as I was at the awkward and very relatable age of 11 when Uncle Buck hit theaters. But I maintain that Uncle Buck is Candy’s greatest film, the role he was born to play.

Mostly, Knelman takes Hughes to task for his brash sentimentalism, a charge I’m not willing to dismiss out of hand. But Uncle Buck was the first Hughes film to really work on both sides of the generation gap. Jean Louisa Kelly’s character of Tia Russell had become stock-in-trade for Hughes, the surly teenager whom nobody understands. But then you had Candy as Buck Russell, the big loveable guy who has never grown up, who has rejected the social norms for a man his age and may now actually regret it. And here again, we find the paradox: Buck lives a life free of responsibility and, loveable as he is, is something of a no-goodnik. But when his brother and uptight sister-in-law find themselves with an emergency, it’s Buck who comes to the rescue, something he couldn’t have done if he wasn’t a semi-employed vagabond. Further to that, since Buck is more familiar with the human condition, he rightfully pegs Tia’s boyfriend Bug as a complete scumbag and goes above and beyond defending his niece from Bug’s machinations, whether Tia likes it or not. Tia’s parents might love her, but as dead-eyed, late-‘80s suburbanite parents, they do little to mend the gap between themselves and their children. Under their watch, that lousy Bug woulda easily had his way with Tia. Buck has his own problems which arise from his devil-may-care attitude—he’s broke, he’s a slob, his long-suffering girlfriend is about to throw him out on his ear. But if Buck had taken the normal route and saved himself those troubles, he’d truly be no good to anybody but himself.

Uncle Buck could not have been played by anyone except John Candy. The man himself could have taken a much different route in his career and his life. He could have been more selective in his roles, he could have distanced himself further from those who might have slowed his career down, he could have not smoked and eaten so much. But everything about John Candy made him the artist he was, and sometimes, that can be detrimental to other aspects of an artist’s life. Martin Knelman’s book makes a lot of noise about the potential of Candy’s career, focusing on what he could have done rather than what he did. Personally speaking, even I could do without stuff like Who’s Harry Crumb, Only the Lonely, and yes, Wagons East! But there’s really no other way around it. And if Candy were able to, I still think he wouldn’t change a thing. The man came by his career honestly, and only because of that was he able to do such great work.

Unbeknownst to me that day in 1994, as I left an empty theater auditorium and headed back to my bus stop, there was a happier ending; another John Candy role was still in the offing. Canadian Bacon, Michael Moore’s first (and so far, last) non-documentary film effort, was released in 1995, though it was in and out of theaters so quickly, I had to settle for the home video version when it was released. It’s not a great movie, but it’s definitely much better, and Candy really shines out as Sheriff Bud Boomer, the small-town cop who leads a guerilla invasion of Canada. Poor career choices were never able to entirely derail his career, and even posthumously, Candy was able to deliver the goods. Despite anything Knelman might have to say, the only tragedy in John Candy’s career was that it ended so soon.

I’m Your Uncle Buck: The Low-Key Career Path of John […]