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Monday, November 14, 2011

The 1991 Hughes Entertainment production Only the Lonely was not directed by, nor written by, producer John Hughes, which on the face of it makes it a poor candidate for a John Hughes retrospective, but I had my reasons. For one, it was the last time that Hughes worked in any capacity with actor John Candy, and it seemed better to save my final thoughts on that extremely profitable collaboration for a film in which Candy had a more substantial role than "uncredited Target manager" in the dreadful Career Opportunities; for another, it is one of only two movies Hughes ever produced that he did not also write (the other is 2001's New Port South, written by his son James and directed by Kyle Cooper; and anyway, that was an "Executive" Producer credit, which is a different thing altogether), and it seemed worthy of mention in that capacity. Neither of these, would be ultimately good enough reasons, of course, and the real reason I have elected to include it here is that Only the Lonely, though written and directed by Chris Columbus (who had previously worked with Hughes on Home Alone and would work with him again on Home Alone 2: Lost in New York), has all the feel of its producer's touch and sensibility, as surely as something overseen by Spielberg in the 1980s or Judd Apatow in the 2000s is ultimately its producer's baby as much as it is the nominal writer's and/or director's. And this is maybe because Chris Columbus is one of the most gruesomely impersonal directors ever to churn out an international megablockbuster. Hard to say for sure.

The film is frequently referred to as an unofficial remake of Marty, which isn't quite true, but it's close enough to get us in the ballpark: Danny Muldoon (Candy) is a Chicago cop in his thirties living with his sharp-tongued mother, Rose (Maureen O'Hara, who came out of a 20-year retirement to make the movie), and it seems pretty clear that he's gotten to the point where even though he's not "happy" happy, he's comfortable enough that it doesn't seem worth the work to change things around. Until, that is, he's obliged to travel to a morgue in the course of his duties, and meets Theresa Luna (Ally Sheedy), the pretty daughter of the mortician, and instantly develops a huge crush on her. His singularly unassertive approach to courtship charms her in despite of herself, and they end up falling love pretty quickly; but she's not exactly thrilled to be dating a man who's so tied to his mother, particularly when his mother is a curt old Irish racist prone to using phrases like "Dago" and "Polack" in reference to her son's Italian-Polish girlfriend.

It's never, ever not clear where this is going, but compared to some of Columbus's other warmhearted movies about the difficulties of being in a family - I am chiefly thinking of the nauseating Stepmom - Only the Lonely is a pretty easy ride, almost entirely because of Candy and the miraculous casting of O'Hara: though they are not altogether believable as mother and son (one wonders what kind of man the arch-Irish Rose must have wed to end up with a boy like Danny), they have a wonderful rapport that makes up for it and then some. Better still, the actors' respective personae flow together beautifully: Candy's pleasant, insecure gentleness makes both an easy target for O'Hara's tart sarcasm, and gives his character a natural defense against it. And that relationship dynamic allows Columbus to present the two characters with a kind of sentimental brittleness that never devolves into sourness.

That central relationship is most of what Only the Lonely has going for it, admittedly. Sheedy, never the most flexible of the Brat Pack crew, is just too damn young to play her part convincingly; she lacks the worn-out quality that seems like it ought to be an important part of her character; the film's humor is by and large more warm and sweet than it is actually "funny", and the few attempts at active comedy a collapse under the weight of Columbus's indelicate touch (I am chiefly thinking here of the repeated motif of Danny's fantasies about the horrible things that might happen to his mother when he abandons her for a date or a sports event or the like, big sprawling slapstick gestures that fall flat). And while the ending is foreordained, it doesn't have to be the case that the stakes feel so low as they do here: as much as it's easy to root for Danny, it's much harder given how low-key every single moment of the film is, to feel much investment in his success - it shall happen in its due course, and that is that, and only Candy's immense likability keeps the film interesting.

On the other hand, for all the Columbus is absolutely not in any way an interesting or challenging or surprising filmmaker, he uses Chicago as well as it could possibly be used; better, in fact, than Hughes ever did (he was fantastic at using the North Shore suburbs, but when it came to the city itself, the best he ever did was Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which feels awfully like a tourist's view of the city). It is odd, maybe, that a man whose Chicago bona fides consist mostly of Adventures in Babysitting should be able to outperform a longtime resident on that front, but there you have it: he gets the geography right, he gets the feeling of the neighborhoods right - and having lived for four years all of a fifteen minute walk away from the location of Rose's apartment, I like to fancy that I know the feeling of the neighborhoods involved - and he even gets one of the tiniest details right that I have ever seen in a Chicago movie: Danny, a good Irish boy, is a White Sox fan and waxes nostalgic about the soon-to-be-demolished Comiskey Park, even though every movie character in every Chicago movie is a Cubs fun, unless it is made a specific plot point.

So anyway: the film is light, it is pleasant, it is forgettable. But it is very Hughesian - the comforting family-firstness of it, the gentle way it pushes two people into a love story that is companionable more than it is aching and passionate, the Chicago setting, John Candy. It is not the best of Candy's performances in a Hughes production (it is maybe, in fact, the worst, but that is a very relative sort of judgment), but it is perhaps the most Candyian: Danny is an exceptionally gentle, peaceable, self-denying figure, decent and nonthreatening and full of love for everybody but himself. If I have repeatedly suggested that the character and the actor are the only thing saving the film from mediocrity, it's because that seems to be such an important point: that Candy was an inordinately likable performer, and his characters were very nice; and no filmmaker ever exploited that so well as Hughes. Even if the result is, in this case, an absolutely inessential movie that is nothing but a cozy way to spend a couple of hours, it is still a gift to be able to create characters who are so warm without feeling in the least bit condescending, to either the role or the audience, and there is no such thing as a chance to see Candy in such a part that is a waste of time. Only the Lonely might not do much, but it surely does that.

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