OK, most people probably won’t spend more than a short paragraph actually reviewing the 1988 John Hughes comedy The Great Outdoors. It’s the consummate 80’s nature comedy starring Dan Aykroyd and John Candy and, unfortunately does exactly what one would expect. The story of affable Chet (the naturally charismatic Candy), and his crooked businessman brother-in-law Roman’s (Aykroyd at his slimiest) lives colliding while on a family vacation in northern Wisconsin is so formulaic, I not only anticipated the plot turns and jokes, I actually predicted most of the punch lines. Now I’m not really a seasoned watcher of comedic films, but The Great Outdoors is so broad that almost everything is telegraphed before it even happens.
The film starts like a lot of 80’s comedies – with the beginning credits set to an infectious song the main characters sing along to. It does a good job of setting the tone of the film, and of course serves as a contrast between Candy and Aykroyd’s characters. Unlike Chet, Roman doesn’t have a lot of patience for singing along to 50’s show tunes. He’s too busy trying to get someone to invest $25000 in his latest business venture. Of course the real fun starts when the uninvited Roman and his family decide to crash Chet’s family vacation. It’s no spoiler to say that a lot of hi-jinks ensues, mostly at Chet’s expense.
Given that this is a Hughes script, I was surprised by how uninventive the characters and the dialogue were. Hughes appears to have trouble writing adults as believable characters. As expected, the kids come off best – Hughes includes a perfunctory teen romance that actually has a lot to say about falling in love on vacation – there’s a rush to it driven by the knowledge that it’ll soon have to end. The adults do have some shining moments as well – Chet has a theatrical moment telling a ‘scary’ story about a humongous bear that he almost got eaten by when he was young and staying at the same resort. The fact that the story even scares Roman is a nice touch. There is also a centerpiece scene with Chet accidentally riding on water ski that is classic 80’s comedy through and through. Oh, and there are also subtitled talking raccoons. Whether that does anything for you depends on your tolerance for toilet humor by way of furry critters. They tried my patience.
Sadly the highs are few and far between and the rest of the film is just flat. By the time the predictably ridiculous finale concludes, I was ready, maybe even happy for the film to end, which given the talent in front and behind the camera, is a real shame. C+
Well it ended the Director/Writer partnership of Howard Deutch and John Hughes which spanned three films (Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful round out the ‘trilogy’). It came out in the middle of Hughes’s career high, as hits like Uncle Buck (also starring Candy) and Christmas Vacation quickly followed. But as a film, it has no lasting legacy at all. As much as people love to get nostalgic about the comedies of the 80’s these days, The Great Outdoors gets nary a mention. Though Annette Benning does make her acting debut as Roman’s spoiled wife. At one point she says “It’s so hard, being wealthy.” and you almost believe her, so I’d say it’s a good debut.
By the way I want to mention that this film is rated PG and yet it contains stronger language than most PG-13 films we get nowadays. Watching it today really shows how much the MPAA has changed in just a few decades.
The next film I’ll be reviewing is the Kusturica classic Time of the Gypsies. See you then!
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