Many great filmmakers are driven by a particular theme, revisiting it repeatedly in their works. Ingmar Bergman pondered the existence of God. John Ford dwelled on the civilizing of the American West. Mike Leigh is compelled by families trying to connect. Which brings us to John Hughes… who explores the effect of bowling balls on the groins of bumbling crooks.
Starting with 1990’s “Home Alone,” eight of Hughes’ recent scripts (including “Flubber” and “Home Alone 3,” which opens this Friday) have involved one or more criminals who are repeatedly bonked, conked, tripped, dipped and generally beaten to a slapsticky pulp. Sometimes the crooks drive the whole plot, as in “Baby’s Day Out” and the three “Home Alone” movies. Then there are the Hughes films like “Flubber” and 1993’s “Dennis The Menace.” These could happily exist concussion-free, but dimwitted thugs are introduced anyway, presumably to make up for a shortage of noise.
Clearly Hughes is the right guy for his recent hobby of updating Disney movies like “Flubber” and “101 Dalmatians.” In the 1960s and ’70s, Disney was the leading employer of bumbling thieves. The studio churned out one live-action slapfest after another — “Gus,” “The Strongest Man in the World” and “The Shaggy D.A.” — in which ordinary Joes triumph over dull-witted, accident-prone goons. This cartoonish style remained largely dormant throughout the ’80s, until Hughes picked up the baton and ran with it (after first using it to jab Daniel Stern in the eye).
Hughes’ preoccupation with cartoon-like bad guys may have a deeper explanation, according to Dr. Will Miller, a pop-culture analyst and the on-air psychologist for Nick at Nite. By portraying criminals in an exaggeratedly inept way, explains Dr. Miller, “Hughes is reflecting the very common perception that we can control the evil part of ourselves. He sees evil, and he’s showing that he can contain it.”
Perhaps the good doctor is right that these films show Hughes’ subconscious concern with the struggle to command life’s dark side. Or maybe, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes an exploding cigar is just an exploding cigar.