We gave it a B
Who’s the most financially successful director currently working? Right, Spielberg. Now name the second biggest moneymaker. Can’t? That’s because Chris Columbus creates movies for which other people get the credit. To most potential video renters, Mrs. Doubtfire is a Robin Williams movie; he even coproduced it with his wife. Home Alone is the fourth-biggest grosser of all time, but both it and its $172 million sequel Home Alone 2 are Macaulay Culkin movies first and writer-producer John Hughes movies second. Even the screenplays Columbus wrote before he turned director-Gremlins, The Goonies, Young Sherlock Holmes-belong more to their executive producer, Spielberg. Blessed with a golden touch and an apparently faceless style, Columbus looks to be the Zelig of modern Hollywood directors.
But looks can deceive. If movie theory holds that an auteur is a director whose concerns continually reveal themselves through the work, then, by Godard, Chris Columbus is an auteur. It’s just that his particular fixation- children and their mothers-mirrors America’s cultural Momism so well that most viewers don’t pick up on it.
Reading the few published profiles of Columbus, I’ve been struck by how his own mother, Irene, surfaces in vivid anecdotes, while his factory-worker dad is never mentioned in any detail. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that fathers are absent or vague in the six movies he has directed, while mothers are unusually human, often flawed. Think of the Home Alone movies: For all their Tinkertoy sadism, it’s the relationship between Kevin and his mom, played by the agreeably testy Catherine O’Hara, that gives the movies what real emotion they have (it’s the only grace of the relentlessly plastic sequel). By contrast, Dad (John Heard) is on hand mostly to grunt and look befuddled.
Even Columbus’ first foray behind the camera, the imitation-Hughes Adventures in Babysitting, fits the mold. The novice director delivered a movie about a novice mom: a teenage babysitter (Elisabeth Shue) who learns survival skills and self-respect while protecting her three wards during a comic-nightmare night in Chicago. But Columbus hadn’t yet figured how to sustain a tone, and the suburban insularity turns smug. You’ll either laugh or cringe during the scene in which the WASPy Shue wails the blues in a club on the Southside; I cringed.
Columbus’ two most personal movies, Heartbreak Hotel and Only the Lonely, spell out, with touching bluntness, his obsessions. How can you tell they’re his most personal? He also wrote them, and they didn’t make much money. They’re also his best; the sentimentality that seems forced in the other films feels gentle and organic here. In Heartbreak Hotel, set in 1972, a teenager (Charlie Schlatter) grows disconsolate watching his mother (Tuesday Weld) cave in to drink, despair, and redneck boyfriends after her husband lights out. So to cheer her up, he kidnaps Elvis Presley (played by David Keith with bovine drollness), who becomes for one weekend Mom’s dream date and the kid’s dream dad. Sure, it’s silly, but it’s also unpretentious, and-paging Dr. Freud-Weld brings fragile sexiness to her over-the-hill honky-tonk angel.
With understated firmness, Only the Lonely insists that mothers can be demons as well as angels. The great Maureen O’Hara came out of retirement to play Rose Muldoon, a judgmental, closed-minded, borderline-racist Chicago widow who keeps her middle-aged cop son, Danny (the late John Candy, in his most nuanced performance), on an emotional tether. Again, the surface is sentimentalized, but O’Hara’s complexly malicious portrayal and Danny’s matricidal daydreams give the game away: Mothers not only give life, they can take it away.
Mrs. Doubtfire turns the formula on its head: The absent Dad becomes the perfect Mom. Daniel Hillard (Williams) is just about out the door-his wife, Miranda (Sally Field), asks for a divorce in the first 15 minutes-but he fights back by donning drag and going undercover as his children’s undercover nanny. Some critics found fault with Doubtfire‘s portrayal of working mom Miranda as a shrill control freak, but it’s worth noting that Columbus reportedly softened the role from the original script (it’s also worth noting, though, that women are played as ballbusters and men as nurturers throughout).
Oddly, Miranda is the most complicated person in the film: She’s a woman who’s not particularly likable, who knows it, and hates it about herself. Williams gets his laughs and tears, but there’s nothing to suggest that what he does to be with his children is more than cutely eccentric (and come on, that disguise wouldn’t fool a three-year-old-Euphegenia Doubtfire looks like Jabba the Hutt in a wig). Mrs. Doubtfire is a kiddie movie that’s slick enough to flatter and amuse the kid in most adults. But maybe it’s time for Chris Columbus to grow up and make a name for himself. Mrs. Doubtfire C+ Home Alone B+ Home Alone 2 D+ Adventures in Babysitting C- Heartbreak Hotel B- Only the Lonely A-