Monday Morning Movie Review: Portly’s Top Ten Best Films: #9: Uncle Buck (1989)

This week’s film is going in my #9 slot, but I think it deserves to be much higher.  I’ve been busy, though, and have not painstakingly plotted out my top ten, as I’m sure Ponty has done.  Instead, I’m going week-by-week with my favorites, including those that are top-of-mind for me.

That said, I love this film, and once this list is finished, I might have to edit the order to the “real” one.

Regardless, it’s my distinct pleasure to review one of the best family comedies ever written, John Hughes’s incomparable Uncle Buck (1989):

You know how when some films come on television, you just have to sit down and watch the whole thing, no matter what point it is in the movie?  That’s Uncle Buck for my family and me.  Apparently, we’re not alone—my girlfriend’s family does the same thing!  For kids growing up in the 1990s, watching Uncle Buck on a lazy Saturday afternoon on cable was a rite of passage, like samples of Tide laundry detergent in the mail.

I don’t have cable anymore, so I can’t engage in this impromptu ritual with the some gusto or frequency.  Fortunately, I have Uncle Buck on DVD, and my girlfriend and I whipped it out about a month ago for some Saturday night viewing.

Uncle Buck is the story of Buck Russell (John Candy), a middle-aged bachelor living next to Wrigley Field, earning a living betting on rigged horse races.  His free-wheeling lifestyle grates on his long-time girlfriend, Chanice, and has put a quiet distance between himself and his brother, Bob Russell.  Bob’s suburban family—wife Cindy and children Tia (fifteen-years old, and Buck’s “antagonist,” of sorts), Miles (eight), and Maizy (six)—are also a bit estranged from Buck, especially Cindy, who disapproves of his loafing lifestyle and tire-selling girlfriend.

Cindy’s father suffers a heart attack in the middle of the night, and the Russells reluctantly call upon Buck to babysit the kids for a few days while they return to Indianapolis, from whence they recently moved.  That move has created considerable friction between Cindy and Tia, the latter of which blames her mother for uprooting the family to the Chicago suburbs simply for a better paycheck.

Buck instantly sets about caring for the children in the way that a perennial bachelor, unfamiliar with the world of laundry machines and irons, would do so.  He bakes the kids massive pancakes for Miles’s birthday.  He dries clothes in the microwave.  He makes huge, protein-rich breakfasts while listening to oldies.

He also runs afoul of Tia, who seems to despise Buck as much as her mother.  Tia is dating Bug, a scoundrel and scalawag looking to bug Tia.  Buck knows Bug’s type (it’s interesting that their names are so similar), as Buck was Bug at one point.  He makes veiled, psychotic references to his power drills and hatchet to spook Bug off, all in the interest of saving Tia’s surly innocence.

Of course, that avuncular protection backfires when Tia tricks Chanice into believing Buck is cheating on her with the Russells’s fruitcake neighbor, Marcie (her full name, “Marcie Dahlgren-Frost,” is a brilliant bit of writing—it captures the essence of a weird, lonely, upper-middle-class divorcee perfectly).

Buck finds himself without a girl and facing a major dilemma:  take the little kids to the track to bet on a horse race that will secure his finances for the following year, or go save Tia from Bug’s proboscis.  He convinces Chanice to watch the little kids so he can save Tia, only to find Bug attempting to bugger another teenage girl.

Naturally, everything works out in the end—Tia reconciles with her mother and Buck, and Buck and Chanice get back together, with the implication that uncling for a couple of weeks has made Buck a better man—still lovable and goofy, but also more willing to should the responsibilities of adulthood and a relationship.

The story is a bit run-of-the-mill, but the execution is perfect.  It’s one of the most perfectly-paced scripts I’ve ever seen, without any wasted screen time.  Hughes tells us so much by showing, and sets up some wonderfully comedic scenes (like Buck showing up to his brother’s house in the middle of the night, only to go to the wrong house and wake up the entire neighborhood).  There’s also a fun, fish-out-of-water angle to the script, with the blue-collar Buck attempting to fit into the world of suburbia.

Perhaps the best scene—the one that encapsulates the magic of this film—is the one in which Buck confronts Maizy’s dictatorial principal:

How many of us have had the fantasy of putting down some officious weasel the way Buck does in that scene?  I know I have.

The star of the film, of course, is John Candy.  He is Uncle Buck.  His plus-size (one might say “portly”) shenanigans fit this larger-than-life character to a tee.  In the scene above, watching attempt to navigate kid-sized urinals at the elementary school is itself an hysterical bit of physical comedy.

But beyond his size, he brings warmth and strength to the role—just the way a loving uncle should.  I don’t have the guts of Buck Russell, but some of his antics definitely remind me of my own relationship with my niece and nephews.  You’d better believe I’d threaten some kid with a power drill if he got too cozy with my niece (of course, bounding and gagging a kid in the trunk of a car is kidnapping, although the film glosses over this point; Buck, presumably, is still a free man).

But merely telling you about Uncle Buck can’t capture the fun and the magic of this film.  Perfectly written, perfectly paced, perfectly cast (even Elaine Bromka as Cindy works, and she’s one of the oddest-looking women I’ve ever seen), perfectly acted—it’s one of the best comedies ever put to film.

Now, here’s a quarter.  Go downtown and have a rat gnaw that thing off your face.  Then pick up a copy of Uncle Buck.

3 thoughts on “Monday Morning Movie Review: Portly’s Top Ten Best Films: #9: Uncle Buck (1989)

  1. A good choice, Port.

    I haven’t seen the film for a while but if it pops up this Christmas, I might have to give it a watch. John Candy had good comic timing and even in films where he played bit parts (like Home Alone), he always had presence, and not just because of his size.

    And yes, I keep changing my mind. I had a definitive top 10 but it keeps changing. Each week, I’ll need to think before writing but I’ve got 3 pieces for this week; Devon, number 9 and Little Nightmares. Book in between. Will be a busy time at the keyboard.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not one for comedies and I don’t like many comedic actors. But I loved the gentleness of this movie. Uncle Buck has a kindness; a good heart. Even at Tia’s worse (and she’s pretty awful!), you never get the feeling Buck is mad at her. His heart is so big, he’s sees kindness and caring in others. I never did think it was a funny movie, but it was touching in a very non-saccharin way. I would watch it again.

    Liked by 1 person

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