Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres. Since it’s Chicago Week here at The A.V. Club, we’re looking back on some essential Chicago movies, set (and often filmed) in the Windy City.
Uncle Buck (1989)
The greater Chicago area had few cinematic boosters more tireless than John Hughes. The city was the setting for nearly every youth-centric story he told, from the detention hall of The Breakfast Club to the suburban streets of Home Alone. But while the films often prominently feature Chicago landmarks or residences, Uncle Buck feels different. Not just because it’s the only film Hughes directed besides Planes, Trains, And Automobiles (which also starred his frequent collaborator John Candy) to follow a grown-up rather than kids—but because Candy’s character, Buck Russell, is the closest thing imaginable to a sentient embodiment of the Chicago the filmmaker loved.
The story of a slovenly layabout with a big heart who matures when he’s corralled into looking after his nieces and nephew for a week, Uncle Buck pulls the usual Hughes maneuver of taking the audience on a whistle-stop tour of Chicago locales, interspersed with the well-manicured lawns and giant houses that defined the surrounding areas for him. Hughes has a soft spot for the stability of the upper-middle-class suburban home, and it comes through in his choices of living situation for the Russell family, who are only a step down the economic ladder from Home Alone’s filthy rich McCallisters.
But Buck Russell is something different. Though uncouth, blunt, and more than a little rough around the edges, he’s such a charismatic force of warmth and joy that his infectious appeal becomes apparent to anyone who expends the effort to get to know him. That’s a character description, but it easily doubles as a romanticized view of the city that kept drawing Hughes back. (Ironic, considering Uncle Buck was originally set to be filmed in St. Louis, but switched back to Hughes’ hometown of choice after unusually warm Missouri weather forced producers to seek a more wintry climate.)
The movie is a feature-length love letter to Candy, the over-the-top but immensely likable comic actor who anchors the narrative. And its laughs hold up, in large part because Hughes doesn’t hold back from coarseness in the dialogue, placing the film in an interesting middle ground between the darker territory of his teenage movies and the candy-coated gloss of Home Alone. (The kids, played by Macaulay Culkin and future Transparent star Gaby Hoffman, say “shit” and “goddammit” with zest.) The story gets dark at times, as a creepy boyfriend of the teenage niece needs to be restrained, albeit with humorous brutality. But Candy sells the good-natured heart of Uncle Buck, which is ultimately a story about how family responsibility can bring out the best in us. It can join a schlubby bum who lives across the street from Wrigley Field with a well-heeled, upper-crust-aspiring family, enriching the lives on both sides of that equation. And that was Hughes’ Chicago: a place of big personalities, marked by flaws, but large enough to encompass all kinds with equal hospitality. Uncle Buck gave the director the opportunity to film that story, and John Candy brought him the soul.
Availability: Uncle Buck is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.