Through luck, skill, timing, and tenacity, John Hughes has become a genuine anomaly in the film industry: He’s his own studio. Not since the glory days of Sam Goldwyn and David Selznick has a mainstream maverick made such a name for himself. True, those two old icons were masters of the prestige release; Hughes, with his Chicago-based Hughes Entertainment company, is more like a Midwestern factory boss overseeing the mass production of jujubes. But he has been prolific enough to establish a number of successful franchises: As writer, producer, or director since the early ’80s, Hughes has given us the National Lampoon vacation series, the Ringwald Cycle (16 Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink), and now, with Home Alone 2 readying for Thanksgiving release, the Macaulay Culkin juggernaut.
And those are just the ideas that went over. For every hit, there has been a handful of also-rans, factory seconds that don’t quite pass the road test. In 1991 alone, Hughes’ name was on Dutch, Career Opportunities, Only the Lonely, and the latest to be released on video, Curly Sue.
None of them has even come close to the success of Home Alone, but let’s face it, no one expected that one-idea lark to become the highest-grossing comedy of all time. These other films are much more typical of Hughes’ cookie-cutter work, combining high concepts with low budgets for a die-stamped movie machine that delivers modest rewards — provided you have modest expectations. That’s why these movies work best as video rentals or on airplanes: While they tend to tick off critics and disappoint audiences during their theatrical runs, on tape they’re like ambitious TV shows — maybe not better, but longer and with nicer sets.
Hughes directed as well as wrote and produced Curly Sue — his first time behind the camera since 1989’s Uncle Buck — and it has all the standard factory options: the Cute Kid, the mix of queasy sentiment and tart slapstick, the sub-Capra populism in which blue-collar characters are wiser, kinder, more real than rich folk. Here Alisan Porter is the Cute Kid, while James Belushi — rapidly becoming the William Bendix of his generation — is the Charming Lout. The two have survived on the streets for most of Curly Sue’s short life through small-time grifts; they’re homeless, yes, but the script makes sure to have Belushi explain to Porter that ”we don’t steal, and we don’t break any laws.” That boing-g-g you hear would be your suspension of disbelief snapping. Now that that’s out of the way, you can enjoy Curly Sue on the disengaged, no- brow level it’s intended for.
The minimal plot has Belushi and Porter hooking up with successful (therefore miserable) lawyer Kelly Lynch, helping her realize how empty her life has been without a husband and kids. The message sounds retro enough to give Susan Faludi an ulcer, but Curly Sue is too toothless to offend. That’s its problem: What saves the movie from being actively bad — Hughes’ slick professionalism — is what keeps it from being of any interest beyond the end credits. From his teen dramedies on, this filmmaker has made a point of taking emotionally potent situations and easing the sting with sitcom synthetics. Curly Sue goes out of its way to touch on homelessness, loneliness, and the urge for a family, but it never touches us. The main villain, Lynch’s lawyer boyfriend (John Getz), is too much of a sneering yup cartoon to care about, and even the title character is a retread of Shirley Temple by way of Tatum O’Neal (it doesn’t help that when Porter opens her mouth to sing, she sounds like a seasoned Broadway belter).
Ironically, Hughes’ hired help seem to handle the mix better than their boss. Dutch, written by Hughes and directed by Peter Faiman, featured Ethan Randall as a preppie teen so obnoxious that few noticed how accurately the part captured a precise sort of unhappy adolescence. And Only the Lonely, produced by Hughes but written and directed by Chris Columbus, brought Maureen O’Hara back to the screen with a beautiful bitch of a part: a possessive, bigoted, charismatic Irish mama to John Candy. Both of those movies eventually opt out with warm, runny endings, but at least they risk our sympathy for a shot at character depth before drenching the proceedings in plastic.
Then there’s Career Opportunities, the awful comedy that attempts to fuse The Breakfast Club (geek Frank Whaley and teen dream Jennifer Connelly get locked in a department store overnight) with Home Alone (they fend off dumb burglars). Hughes wrote and coproduced it but reportedly claimed that studio executives refused to listen to his suggestions and that the final film was cheap and vulgar. He’s certainly right about the second part, but I’m not so sure cheap vulgarity is worse than the cheap, bloodless efficiency of Curly Sue. Perhaps Hughes is too intent on keeping his assembly line moving to lavish individual care. If that’s true, he should have just gone ahead and named his production company after that old disco group the Hues Corporation; he already seems to have taken his motto from the chorus of their 1974 hit: ”Don’t rock the boat.” C-