Comedians Dan Aykroyd and the late, John Candy needlessly fuss and feud in director, Howard Deutch’s The Great Outdoors (1988): a woefully undernourished claptrap that does its utmost to squander great talent on a mediocre tale, ironically written by the late/great John Hughes (who ought to have known better), and, meant to extol the vices, rather than the virtues of its name sake. Indeed, the Ripley family – Chet (Candy), wife, Connie (Stephanie Faracy), and their two young sons, Buck (Chris Young) and Ben (Ian Giatti) are in for a bad time of it; thanks in part to the party-crashing antics of their overzealous and self-appointed know-it-all uncle, Roman Craig (Aykroyd), his chain-smoking wife, Kate (Annette Bening) and their frizzy-haired strawberry blonde twin daughters, Mara (Rebecca Gordon) and Cara (Hilary Gordon); a rather transparent riff on the demonic twins featured in 1980’s The Shining. Retrospectively, The Great Outdoors is an otiose butchery of formulae; a series of bizarrely disjointed skits not even suitable for a 2-minute skit on Saturday Night Live; the irony herein, Candy never appeared on SNL, while Aykroyd, an SNL alumni, had his biggest big screen hit co-starring opposite another ‘fat man’, James Belushi, in The Blues Brothers (1980). In hindsight, Aykroyd’s Budd Abbott to these two Lou Costellos proved uncannily lethal; each dying prematurely (Belushi of a drug overdose in 1982, at the age of just 33, and Candy, of a massive heart attack in 1994, ten years Belushi’s senior).
The Great Outdoors marginally functions as an idiotic parody of the proverbial family vacation gone from bad to worse before everyone can even exit the station wagon. But it lacks any staying power primarily because all of the characters in it are variations of the ‘stick figure with no soul’. Candy plays a sort of sad-eyed, put upon husband who cannot even coax his relatively playful wife into a flagrante delicto without his pleas taking on the very creepy connotation of a forced act of contrition. Mercifully, we are spared the sight of this flubbed and flabby seduction when Roman and his entourage unexpectedly appear in the doorway to the Ripley’s rented cabin. Roman is a loutish and big-mouthed entrepreneur; the provider having lost sight of the proverbial forest for its trees. At one point he even asks Kate why their daughters are incapable of showing him any emotion the same way Chet’s boys do for their father. And yet, there is very little father/son bonding going on in this movie to sustain the illusion anyone is close-knit; Buck, barely waiting for the moments where he can ditch his family to pursue a preciously out of whack teenage romance with local carhop, Cammie (Lucy Deakins); a tart-mouthed and more ‘experienced’ mate for this paradoxically still wet-behind-the-ears city kid from Chicago.
Cammie is not interested in a ‘summer romance’. We get the sincere impression she has had far too many in the past: passed around, then cast off by undisclosed, frisky young lads, a sort of ‘used up’ town trollop with far too many regrets for a girl barely sixteen. It’s a hard-knock life, I suppose; figuratively and literally. This could have been an interesting narrative sideline for screenwriter, Hughes; the hard-working country lass and clean-cut Lochinvar from the big city, more fresh-faced than pimply, and thus, in desperate need of a good maturing in the woods. Hold on to yer rod and reel, kid, and prepare to cast your worm in some very fishy waters… except Hughes is infinitely more interested in subjecting his audience to a series of dead end rivalries between Chet and Roman; some sub-par ‘T’ and ‘A’ humor (Buck gooses Cammie with his pool cue), and, thinly veiled ‘fat’ jokes; ladled on to an already top heavy mess of not altogether achieved slapstick sight gags (like force-feeding Chet a 96 lbs. steak he succeeds in downing on a dare, but then vomits up; mercifully, off camera, after exposed to some maggot-infested garbage torn apart in his kitchen by a trio of raccoons). All in all, The Great Outdoors is neither joyously obtuse nor unabashedly ribald; Hughes – I think – trying to go for some outdated uber-sophistication, singed with his inexplicable absence for writing good solid character parts. One can sense something of this artistic tug-o-war going on in practically every scene almost from the beginning; Hughes, frequently on the cusp of being brilliant – or, at least, coherent – but then toggling back his smarts for some real ‘kick in the crotch’ dipstick humor. Booooooring! Just so we are clear, The Breakfast Club (1985) The Great Outdoors is not!
Our story begins with comparative treks made by the Ripleys and the Craigs to the ‘great outdoors’; California’s Bass Lake, a poetically small and rustic resort community near Yosemite National Park, subbing in for Hollywood’s quaintly idiotic ideal of the Canadian wilderness. Aside: as a life-long Canadian, I am always amused by the chutzpah of American film makers who continue to reference Canada in totem as a nation as an unsophisticated trading outpost in a wasteland of tall pines – the land of white horse-riding Mounties, extremely rugged, oft inhospitable and remote timberland, and, baby-seal clubbing trappers, furriers and granite-faced Inuit’s; especially since a good many American film companies have repeatedly made their pilgrimage to ‘the real true north…strong and free’, exploiting our metropolises as substitutes for their own, taking advantage of our tax credits and plentifully realized steel and concrete big city ‘locales’, though rarely, if ever, given credit as existing outside the good ole U.S. of A. But I digress.
The Chicagoan Ripley clan, Chester ‘Chet’, Connie, Buckley ‘Buck’ and virtually nondescript, Ben are headed to the lake resort of Pechoggin, Wisconsin in the family’s comfortably careworn station wagon. Chet has very fond memories of his own father taking him to Pechoggin when he was just a boy and now he sincerely hopes this outing will bring him and his boys closer together. One of the ironies in The Great Outdoors is that while this ostensibly appears to be one of the modus operandi for the movie – male bonding in the woods - almost immediately Chet’s mission becomes telescopically focused on his adversarial contempt for Roman, and on achieving a ‘relationship’ with his teenager, Buck. If Ben is mentioned at all, it is as an afterthought. So daddy is playing favorites…is he? Not far behind the Ripleys, preferring the plush comforts of their BMW, are Connie’s sister, Kate, superficial and chain-smoking, accompanied by her investment broker hubby, Roman and their twin girls, Mara and Cara. A word about ‘the twins’ – pointless and virtually ignored, except inexplicably made up for the climactic ‘rescue/intervention’. More on this penultimate moment later on in this review.
Wally (Robert Prosky), the proprietor of the lodge is an uncivilized coot. Nevertheless, he runs a fairly popular business, together with his screwy wife and a psychotic German Shepherd. The Ripleys are taken to their oversized ‘cabin’, newly renovated, but only just vacated by the former tenants who have left the kitchen a disheveled mess. Somewhat put off, Connie commences with the scrubbing and sanitizing. After Buck and Ben take off to the lake, Chet suggests a bit of impromptu lovin’ to Connie to make up for lost time. There is a real uncomfortableness to this ‘playful’ seduction, as Connie repeatedly refuses to ‘get romantic’; using all of the conventional excuses in the handy housewife’s handbook, meant to stave off any husband’s libidinous desires. Chet virtually ignores all of the signposts while systematically stripping Connie down to her bare-breasted unease. The mood becomes palpably sexy – presumably, because to pursue it any other way would shift the premise to spousal rape. Alas, Connie and Chet are spied on by the Craigs who suddenly appear uninvited in their doorway; Roman unable to help himself from whipping out the Camcorder, much to Connie and Chet’s chagrin.
Chet is not at all pleased by this turn of events; even less so, when Roman bullies his way into sharing the cabin for the duration of their vacation under the ruse he just wants to spend a little quality family time together. Actually, Roman is trying to sucker Chet on a $25,000 investment deal to shore up his personal debt. For the time being, Roman plays up the disguise of affluence, renting a power boat to take everyone out on the lake. Chet would have preferred to lazily cruise the lake in a pontoon boat. But Buck and Ben cannot wait for some real adventure. And so, Chet gives in, attempting to give Ben a few pointers how to water ski. Inadvertently, Roman assumes Chet is going to ski in Ben’s place. He fires up the boat, coyly named ‘Suck My Wake’ and tears off across these open waters with Chet barely hanging on. Predictably, Chet is dragged all over the place, narrowly avoiding perilous mishaps with other boaters and pulled through the swampy marsh, upsetting a small cluster of ducks, before finally being thrown like a flounder not too far from shore; buried from the neck up in bottom-feeder silt. That evening, Chet sets aside his differences and regales the family with a ghost story about a man-eating grizzly he and Connie encountered as newlyweds on vacation in these same parts. Connie backs Chet’s story to a point. But then Chet gets carried away; embellishing lurid details about the animal’s blood-lust for human flesh. This terrorizes virtually everyone except Connie, who is angry at her husband for telling such a tall tale about the Bald-Headed Bear of Claire County.
Meanwhile, Roman continues to make an arrogant nuisance of himself; thwarting Chet’s plans for a cozy hotdog luncheon in favor of some grilled crab-legs. He constantly compares his seemingly good fortune and business acumen with Chet’s rather middle-of-the-road acceptance of middle class quaintness. This repeatedly raises Chet’s dander the wrong way. However, Connie calms everything with her never-waning admiration for her husband. She is supremely happy to be Chet’s ‘little woman’ – no forthright feminist principles here. We shift focus to Buck, who has skulked off for a little excitement with Ben. They inadvertently find it at a local pool hall, Buck accidentally goosing sharp-shooting local, Cammie who is bent over, playing a similar shot at the adjoining table. Much to Chet’s chagrin, his elder son would rather spend more time pursuing Cammie, than engage in some meaningful father/son badinage about life, girls and sex. Still, Chet does manage one moonlit charter alone with Buck on the lake, encouraging his son to gaze up at the stars. He also gives Buck his late grandfather’s ring; a gift bestowed upon Chet by his father when he was roughly the same age Buck is now. Buck gets it. Dad is just being dad – and a really good one at that: nothing sissifying about two macho guys hugging in the dark or even in public; although Buck still has not quite overcome his awkwardness here. Cammie is, at first, aloof to downright bitchy; always a movie-land signifier in any male/female relationship everything will work out in the end. Cammie makes her position clear to Buck. She does not want a ‘boyfriend’ for two weeks. Of course, almost immediately, Cammie reneges on these terms, perhaps because Buck is just too, too cute and unpretentiously interested in her. Regrettably, Buck’s grand amour is derailed by a family outing to the local log cabin diner where Roman goads Chet into eating the ‘Old 96'er’ (a 96-ounce steak). The contest incurs the admiration of all the other patrons. However, it has severely cut into Buck’s prearranged rendezvous with Cammie. Believing him to be just like all the other boys she has known – eg. not of his word – Cammie pouts a little, then absolutely refuses to have anything to do with Buck for the next few days.
As the hours of their vacation dwindle down, Buck trolls the fairgrounds hoping to find Cammie and make his heartfelt apology for having stood her up. Meanwhile, things finally boil over between Chet and Roman; the former accusing the latter of being a snobbish son of a bitch who has ruined their family outing. Roman accosts Chet for being a gross underachiever he would not be caught dead with anywhere in public. Roman tells Chet he overheard a conversation between Chet and Connie and Kate’s dad on the day Roman and Kate were to be wed; Chet forewarning the family that Roman could not be trusted. Roman fakes tears, saying he was deeply wounded by this insinuation. The irony soon to be revealed is that Roman is exactly the sort of untrustworthy prig he has described. Roman further informs Chet his sole purpose for crashing their vacation was to help Chet get in on a ‘can’t miss’ investment opportunity. Under the guise of guilt, Roman provokes Chet into writing a check for $25,000. Actually, Roman plans to use this money to shore up his own bank accounts. Making off with the check and his family in tow, Roman has a change of heart – or rather, is made to feel guilty by Kate, who unknowingly thinks Roman is doing the altruistic thing by letting Chet in on a fabulous business opportunity. Roman turns the car around, barges into Chet’s cabin and confesses the truth to everyone – he is penniless – before tearing up Chet’s check as a pledge of good faith. He further confides that the previously told story about Chet speaking ill of him on his wedding day never actually happened. Roman made the whole thing up to make Chet feel guilty.
A horrific summer storm erupts. Inexplicably, Mara and Cara seize the opportunity now to venture into the woods in their rain slickers, carrying a lantern between them to guide their way. Of course, they become lost, slipping down a mine shaft into a watery underground passage from whence they must be rescued. Too late in realizing the girls are missing from the cabin, Roman and Chet now hurry into the woods under the cover of night in a frantic search for them. Discovering their predicament, Chet encourages Roman to be a real father for the first time in his life, setting aside his claustrophobia to slip down the mine shaft and provide comfort to his girls. As Roman makes his daring rescue with Mara and Cara in tow, Chet hurries to the cabin for some rope. He arrives, too late, back at the mine shaft, quite unaware Roman and the girls are no longer inside. Chet tosses his rope down the shaft to the same grizzly bear he and Connie narrowly escaped years before. The bear takes the rope in its teeth and Chet inadvertently hoists the beast up to the surface; the enraged animal chasing Chet through the rainy woods and back into the cabin where it breaks down the door and begins to terrorize the family. Wally bursts in with a shotgun and Chet uses it to blast the fur off the bear’s buttocks. The wounded, but otherwise unharmed, beast cries out and takes off into the woods. The next day, Chet and Roman set aside their differences, Roman adding “Race you home,” before getting into his BMW and driving away. Connie confesses she has decided to allow her sister to move in with them until Roman can get back on his feet. Buck and Cammie reconcile and kiss before he is ordered by Chet back into the station wagon, now, even more eager to get back home; presumably, to prevent Roman from moving in. The movie ends with three raccoons communicating to each other about the bear now being ‘bald’ at both ends, followed by an impromptu dance sequence at the lodge; Roman paying far more attention to Connie as Chet and Kate sit off to the side, seemingly without regrets or any spousal jealousy.
The Great Outdoors is an inarticulate comedy at best with John Candy and Dan Aykroyd simply going through the motions. Honestly, they have all but phoned in these (choke!) performances; Candy, apparently bored rigid with being typecast yet again as the cuddly ‘fat guy’, and Aykroyd, doing his utmost to make Roman Craig one of the least sympathetic or even marginally likable characters in his acting repertoire. Interestingly, in a bit of role reversal, Candy had played a similarly-colored damn nuisance, Del Griffith, in Planes, Trains and Automobiles opposite Steve Martin, made the year before; another movie written – but, this time also directed by – John Hughes. In that movie, Candy brought forth a misunderstood tenderness. All comics, even those playing up their idiocy as the annoying guy on the side, ought to never succumb to the sort of ‘nails on a chalkboard’ grating ineptitude Aykroyd possesses herein. Roman Craig is not a nice man. That is putting things mildly! Yet, even as obvious contrast to Candy’s bumbling milquetoast, Aykroyd’s self-aggrandizing fop is not appealing. Without question, Roman Craig is Chet’s foil; in many ways, his arc nemesis. But Aykroyd makes him a real pain in the ass too; and not beloved or amusingly so. Roman is, in fact, exactly the sort of arrogant piece of skin one would never want as a friend and certainly would do everything in his/her power to avoid as family.
The Great Outdoors equally suffers from a lack of characterizations throughout. These are not people – or even characters we can relate to, but cardboard cutouts excised from the Screenwriter’s 101 college course handbook. It is really disheartening to think of John Hughes, the virtuosi of such coming-of-age masterpieces as The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, writing such drivel, either from hunger or simply to capitalize on his stature and make a quick buck. Either way, his premise, plot and dialogue in The Great Outdoors miserably fall short of expectations. If that were not enough to sink the picture, Candy and Aykroyd are merely playing to type. As far as archetypes go, theirs is the most clear-cut; Candy, the empathetic ole ham and Aykroyd the unapologetic boil on the butt of humanity. Alas, Stephanie Faracy and Annette Bening have virtually no staying power as precociously loyal and fair-weather spouses respectively: nor screen presence, nor even personality. I suspect The Great Outdoors was naively pitched to make a ‘new’ star out of prepubescent Chris Young. While the actor has steadily worked since, his appearances could hardly be eluded to as having fulfilled the promises put forth for his career aspirations herein. It really is a shame too, because Young adds a certain adolescent je ne sais quoi to his brief moments on the screen, particularly those shared with Lucy Deakins, offering far more substantial and uncharacteristically adult romantic chemistry, repeatedly sidelined by the corn and dull sparks lingering between Candy and Faracy. In the final analysis, The Great Outdoors is hardly a ‘great’ film. It relies too much on predictability and wholly impossible silliness. We get vignettes in place of situations or even situation comedy. Want my advice? Go jump in the lake rather than see this movie. A cool splash is far more invigorating than this tepid belly flop. Regrets.
Universal Home Video’s Blu-ray is at least more promising, though with caveats. For starters, the vintage Universal logo preceding the main titles is riddled with age-related artifacts. Honestly, I do not understand the executive logic that would remaster an entire movie, but inexplicably leave its own iconic trademark looking dull, careworn and in rougher than anticipated shape. There is dirt, scratches, some color fading and a lot of white blips. The good news is, immediately following the logo we are treated to a fairly impressive and artifact-free transfer that remains steadfast and solid. The opening credits have less pop than the rest of the movie; I suspect, partly due to the limitations of optically printing in the titles on top of Ric Waite’s bucolic shots of gorgeous, sun-filtered, winding roads and densely forested hillsides, typifying ‘the simple country life’, that, of course, the rest of the movie will spend poking insincerely fun at and criticizing as grotesquely imperfect for these ‘fish out of water’ city folk. Contrast is quite pleasing on the whole. Fine detail is not razor sharp, nor do I suspect it should be. While some may feel the ‘softness’ is due to untoward DNR tinkering, I firmly believe it has a lot more to do with vintage film stocks and Waite’s cinematographic decisions made. As for color: it looks smashing! Flesh tones are ‘bang on’; greens, vibrant and luscious.
Overall, I much prefer the work Universal has done on The Great Outdoors. This Blu-ray looks competent without delivering the ‘wow’ factor in razor-sharp clarity. It sounds pretty spiffy too; 2.0 DTS proving a real boost to the pop-orientated soundtrack; also, the roars of the grizzly bear. Dialogue is front and center but in keeping with vintage 80’s soundtracks, so, no complaints. No extras either. Sorry, Universal…I don’t list theatrical trailers as ‘extras’. A ‘making of’ or some newly produced interviews count. But we don’t get those here. Bottom line: this Blu-ray is an A- effort for a D+ comedy that goes nowhere fast. Buy accordingly, and pray Universal eventually gets around to giving the better movies from their as yet untapped back catalog. My immediate votes would be for Cry Freedom, Tammy & The Bachelor, Sweet Charity, Flower Drum Song, The Secret of My Success, House Sitter, Six Weeks, and, better restorations for Field of Dreams and Sophie’s Choice; pretty please, but soon.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)