Uncle Buck (1989) and the Joys of Sincerity
A truly lost art.
Uncle Buck (1989) may as well have been made in a foreign country, one that looks superficially like America in 2023 but beneath tells a story that one rarely sees played out in movies anymore. In other words, Uncle Buck is a movie that doesn’t hate its audience, hate families, hate goodness, hate America.
Much of John Huges’s idealized suburban Midwest may resemble the world around you, particularly the swearing and sexual references regrettably shoehorned into what is ostensibly a family movie; thankfully, these elements are muted compared to their presence in movies now, though obviously much more present than they would have been in a family movie thirty-five years prior to 1989. Teenagers flaunt adults’ orders and engage in smoking, drinking, and sex. Little kids curse. And so on. Perhaps Hughes included these elements, and other examples of near criminal adult behavior (the drunken clown who shows up to Buck’s nephew Miles’s1 birthday party in his mouse car, creepy Pal spouting sexual innuendos to Buck’s fifteen-year-old niece at the bowling alley) and actually criminal adult behavior (Buck’s horse race-fixing friend Rog), so the contrast between them and the innocent world of childhood Buck is trying to preserve for his nieces and nephew stands out more. Perhaps.
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One thing that separates Uncle Buck, or U.B. as Miles calls him, is the fact that he starts the movie with a big heart—and that’s not a John Candy weight joke. When Buck’s brother Bob calls in the middle of the night asking him to drive out from Chicago to the suburbs now to watch the kids so they can get to Indianapolis and Buck’s sister-in-law Cindy’s father, who just had a heart attack, post-haste, Buck—a childless, carefree, responsibility-less ne’er do well who strings his longtime girlfriend Chanice along and doesn’t even have a job—does not hesitate to say yes. Forget that he hasn’t seen his nieces and nephew in years. Forget that he hasn’t been out to his brother’s house since they moved from Indianapolis to the Chicagoland area. Forget that Buck’s sister-in-law hates him. Buck is loyal to family. He’ll be there.
From the get-go, Buck is kind and loving to his family. Even Cindy. The two little ones, Miles and Maisy, love him. It’s teenager Tia who can’t stand Buck. She is openly rebellious, palling around with a lecherous lout named Bug. The thing is, her anti-social antics aren’t played to make her look cool. Her rebellion is not appealing. Tia, in fact, comes off as a gigantic bitch. Just look at her face!2
But what Tia is is a young, confused woman who loves her parents, yearns for them. She loves them so much that the fact they’re never around is killing her, so she acts out. It’s very believable and hits any parent hard.
Buck doesn’t care that his niece can’t stand him. Layabout though he might be, Buck recognizes Bug as a scumbag who uses girls, yes, girls plural, and not just Tia, for sex. He is a predator. Buck sees this instantly. It takes one to know one, I guess. And when Tia comes around, sees that Buck only cared about her and wasn’t trying to ruin her social life, it brings her back to reality: adults do care. They often act in ways that seem uncool to kids, but it is because the adults do know better. They have experienced things and have valuable wisdom to impart. Even forty-year-old losers like Buck Russell.
As an aside, it is John Candy’s effortless charisma that makes the Buck character work. As an actor,3 Candy never felt like a guy playing a character, or worse, a caricature, of an affable, good-natured regular guy. He just was, which leads a viewer to assume there must be some similar characteristics in Candy’s core for him to draw upon in his work.
This exertion of parental authority—or avuncular authority, to be more accurate—and the recognition that such authority is good, is the strangest aspect of Uncle Buck to older viewers in the thick of the 21st century who remember the before times, its most foreign. This authority isn’t played for laughs. There is no joke at the end of Buck and Tia’s true moment, no bathos like a gigantic fart to ruin the genuinely emotion of the scene—nay, the whole movie. It is played straight and sincerely. The jokes do come, but in more appropriate fora. John Hughes understood tone.
Buck’s true character-defining moment comes shortly before he embarks to rescue Tia from the predations of Bug. Tia disobeys her uncle and continues to see Bug, ditching the family on a Friday night to go to an all-weekend party. This happens to be the night Buck needed Tia to watch Miles and Maisy so he can go to the fixed horse race Rog told him about at the bowling alley and make his money for the year. In the car with the little ones in tow, Buck is this close to abandoning the ungrateful Tia to her fate and bringing the sweet children to the racetrack, until he looks himself in the mirror, calls his estranged girlfriend Chanice to watch the kids, and goes off to save his niece. It’s a great scene, the crux of the whole movie, and there is no sarcasm, no “irony,” no smirking distance. It is real and raw and that is why the movie, and so many movies of that era, feel real in a way a lot of movies I see made from the 90s and beyond do not.4
I won’t spoil the entire thing in case there is anyone reading who hasn’t seen this movie before. Suffice it to say, while the movie has no discussion of then-contemporary politics, its politics are eternal in that, like most art that feels real, it’s very right-wing. Don’t laugh. The suburbs as a place of joyful peace and stability and not a den of secret hypocrisy and horror? Check. Family as a good thing worth fighting for, of being a part of? Check. A young girl’s virginity as something worth protecting? Check, although it’s unclear if Bug actually despoiled Tia when Buck finds her. It’s heartwarming in the true sense, despite the occasionally crude edges. I haven’t seen a movie made since 2000 that has replicated this feeling without being cloying or emotionally manipulative, providing an unearned catharsis. It’s hard to make a genuine movie, I guess, when you’re a nihilistic, spiritually empty hedonist.
Hughes’s direction clues the viewer in to these sensibilities. As someone who was alive in 1989, to watch Uncle Buck is to watch a time capsule of that decade as I remember it, one where adults are the rock upon which the family is built, letting kids know that they are in charge and are right, even if we haven’t yet come around to the fact that they’re right. The “adults are idiots and kids possess all the wisdom” inversion wouldn’t reach its fruition until the 90s, although the seeds were there.
Pay attention to the Russell’s home: it’s a picture-perfect slice of honest upper-middle-class Americana. Everything looks lovely, homey. Basic things, like the kitchen are lived in, lovingly showing the bric-a-brac a stable family of five might acquire through the simple act of living a good life. Even the people are attractive, dressed well, healthy looking and, for lack of a better word, normal. John Hughes had respect for his subjects, and his audience.
There are elements of class, of course. Buck’s girlfriend Shanice runs a tire shop in the city, but while decidedly blue-collar she is not “trashy,” despite what Buck’s Cindy and Tia might think. Shanice is another source of responsibility and stability. Sure, she looks like the kind of woman who, probably smokes unfiltered cigarettes and throws down beers to match the boys, probably goes to church most Sundays. But she is not treated as a punchline. The currently despised white working class is treated with the dignity that they, too, deserve. This is anathema in Current Year.5
Hell, even the dive bowling alley looks like a fun place full of decent people, save, of course, for the creepy Pal.6
Am I over-intellectualizing a family comedy that is almost as old as I am? Of course—this is the internet, after all. But when people tell you that there were no “good old days,” they’re lying. Things were better in many ways back then, in ways that economics and cheap consumer distractions cannot paper over. So they had no cell phones or internet at the time of Uncle Buck. Big deal. Nobody’s life seemed poorer for it; quite the contrary.
Astute readers will realize I haven’t talked race. Modern viewers of a certain political bent (read: miserable assholes) will surely notice the lack of black people, or non-whites generally.7 I say: who gives a shit? Uncle Buck was made at a time when the country was probably 80 percent white, the tony Chicago suburbs probably like 98 percent. How dare a movie made at this time reflect that fact? If this bothers you, I encourage you to hop on a plane, fly to Toronto, and partake in Canadian healthcare as fast as possible. All of our lives will be better for it.
One last note on race:8it literally never comes up in the movie, not once. There are no power dynamics, no oppressor-oppressed matrix percolating in the background. That is because such things are a figment of your febrile imagination. If this describes you, seek help. Now. Preferably in the form of lethal injection or a noose.
Uncle Buck portrays a world that is rapidly vanishing from the American memory with a sincerity that will feel off-putting to viewers raised on snark and insincerity. Whether it’s nostalgia or saudade will depend on one’s age, but I say to you that such a world did exist once, and it was wonderful.
Yes, that’s pre-Home Alone Macaulay Culkin.
That’s not fair. Jean Lousia Kelly was actually a lovely girl.
I do not know what Candy was like as a person.
There’s a writing lesson here.
Even the Russell’s sex-crazed neighbor, the divorcee Marcie Dahlgren-Frost, hilariously portrayed by Laurie Metcalfe. She isn’t portrayed as some malicious homewrecker, just a woman who is very lonely, if you know what I mean.
“You like all-terrain vee-hick-ells? I got a brand-new Bronnn-co right out in the parking lot.”
Okay, to be fair, one of the kids at Miles’s birthday party is black.
There was a short-lived, rather awful Uncle Buck TV series that lasted from 1990 to 1991, as well as a 2016 series featuring an all-black cast. I have not seen that one, but I think Mike Epps would make a good Buck Russell.