Maybe it’s because the anniversary fell on the weekend, but it’s shocking how few tributes there are to Uncle Buck turning 25. I know, it’s only John Hughes‘s second-highest-grossing movie as a director (out of eight), and only currently (according to Rotten Tomatoes) the ninth best-reviewed of his movies in any creative capacity (out of 31). I understand that it’s a fairly insignificant comedy without a lot of cultural or historical relevance. It’s just Mr. Mom (scripted by Hughes) without the social contexts of the recession and the rise of women in the workforce that makes that movie an important piece of American cinema. It’s a sitcom that didn’t even translate well to television. A saccharine family film that’s actually not that appropriate for children — and that’s after a cut was made to the theatrical version due to parent complaints (the drunk clown scene was apparently more profane).
Uncle Buck might suffer for being sort of sandwiched between two more popular movies: Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which may have inspired John Candy‘s role here, and Home Alone, which is said to have been inspired by a scene with Macaulay Culkin in this movie. Yet speaking of Culkin, he’s one of the reasons that Uncle Buck deserves more recognition. While the movie is primarily a vehicle for Candy and his sloven, ignorant and occasionally violent childcare shtick, it’s most notable for its youngest players, namely Culkin and Gaby Hoffmann, who own every scene they’re in, with or without their large co-star. Their performances are mainly limited to reaction shots, yet they’re some of the most perfect reaction shots in all of history, never wearing out the fact that they’re responsible for being the punchline of every joke or gag laid out by Candy.
The rest of the little kids appearing in the movie are great, too, whether background or featured extras. I think we can thank casting director Billy Hopkins, who pretty much discovered Culkin (and maybe also gave Anna Chlumsky her first shot here, though extras casting is credited to The Geddes Agency), but obviously Hughes deserves credit for what he does with the future kid star’s breakout appearance. Whoever is most due of commendation, below are a handful of scenes from the movie that highlight the best of the child actors’ work in the movie.
Ah, the 1980s, when kids in movies said the darnest things. I mean damnest things, because they were always swearing or talking about genitalia. It’s not likely that a family film made today would have a scene for its precocious 8-year-old co-star where he talks in depth about his neighbor’s balls. At least not with the word “balls.” What synonym might be used instead now? Hmmm. “Nuts.”
Universal knew it had a memorable moment here and used it for the opening and closing of the movie’s trailer. Before Uncle Buck even made its way into theaters, Culkin was a star thanks to the marketing showcasing his Dragnet-like probe into the identity of his new caretaker, a relative he wasn’t aware he had. Ahead of the interrogation, though, is a great introduction between the smart-ass kid and his uncle. I’ve never understood why he says Buck is cooking their garbage, but the delivery of the line is nevertheless magical. Also in this scene is Jean Louisa Kelly as the teenage sibling Tia, who ironically for a work by Hughes gives one of the worst performances in the movie. In fact, all the high school-age kids are awful (excluding Jay Underwood, who was in his 20s then anyway). This is clearly the place where Hughes went from being great with teens to being great with the little ones.
“Waiting for your Sex?”
Again, it’s amazing what kinds of dialogue they gave little kids back then (in retrospect it seems even funnier). Especially because a lot of us children of the ’80s just went and repeating the above line at school, got in trouble and then wished we had an Uncle Buck of our own to help us out of the jam. That brings us to the next scene…
Assistant Principal’s Office
This might seem like its Candy’s scene, but it’s not. His mean-spirited behavior during a meeting with the kids’ assistant principal is nothing without the little boy sitting just outside the office (I believe the actor’s name is Kyle Lewis Eastman). Again, it’s all about the children’s reaction shots in this movie. The whole scene should just be the close-up on the boy as we hear what’s going on in the other room. I wonder if he’s actually reacting to the dialogue of the scene or something else. Nobody that young is that good without some genuine shocking stimuli to work off of. Meanwhile, there’s also the cutaway during this scene to Maizy (Hoffman) getting in trouble for saying “Goddamned” in her class. That’s where you can spot Chlumsky in her debut film appearance biting her thumbnail. Seems like a terrific projection of her future character on Veep.
What’s funnier, a stack of giant pancakes or the response to that stack by Culkin and Hoffman? Culkin’s face at the end of the birthday feast bit is so expressive that he deserves every extra moment of what would normally be too many reaction shots for one kinda stupid sight gag. I wonder if anyone else has ever noticed how much he resembles fellow former child star Scotty Schwartz (The Toy; A Christmas Story) in that last close-up. And for Hoffman, it’s the little things, such as before the kids get to the gag when she does what was presumably an improvisational jump off the stairs. Following the gag, we have another favorite moment for fans of the movie: the drunken clown played by Mike Starr. I like the scene, though, for the bratty birthday party guests, one of whom is played by Joel Robinson, who went on to star on the show Sister Kate (you know you watched it for young Jason Priestly) and reunite with Culkin for Richie Rich. I’m surprised the little freckled jerk (Colin Baumgartner, I presume) didn’t blow up after this as well.
One reason I like the bit where Miles reveals the contents of his bag lunch is that it seems to be a callback to the lunch scene in Hughes’s The Breakfast Club. Then it was all high-protein and carb-heavy items because Emilio Estevez’s character is an athlete. Here it’s a bunch of inappropriate foods, such as sardines, prepared by Buck. The reaction of the kids at Miles’s table when he asks for a trade is maybe the worst of them in this movie, but that’s mainly because it’s a scripted physical gag. Their faces before the overhead shot, though, are in line with the rest of the movie’s directorial brilliance. There’s not a kid in the entire cafeteria, close-up or not, who isn’t amazing.
Watch this scene at AnyClips.com.