“Let go of the rope”
Most would probably call it lesser John Hughes—he wrote and produced with Howard Deutch taking the director’s chair—but The Great Outdoors will always hold a special place in my heart. If you asked me who John Candy was in 1990 I’d probably have said, “the guy from The Great Outdoors” even though Uncle Buck had been released and deservedly held as the better work. There was something about the comedy brought forth from nature that appealed to me as a kid who had never been camping. It’s a laugh when everyone wakes up with leeches on their skin and when they find themselves combating a bat in the cabin. And through it all also resides a heartfelt look at family and its bond’s strength above petty differences and annoyances.
The goofy tone is set from the get-go with the Ripleys led by Candy’s Chet singing along and mouthing the words to The Coasters‘ “Yakety Yak”. Chris Young‘s Buck drums on his dad’s shoulders, Ian Giatti‘s Ben plays a mean hand sax, and mom (Stephanie Faracy‘s Connie) goes low for the “don’t talk back” line as the car ride continues towards Wally and Juanita’s Campsite on Lake Potowotomininac. Chet hopes the trip conjures the same feelings he had in his youth with his own father and this jolly mountain of a well-meaning man probably would have been successful if not for some uninvited guests. They’re hardly settled in before Connie’s sister Kate (Annette Bening‘s feature debut) and brother-in-law Roman (Dan Aykroyd) arrive with their twin girls and elitist attitudes.
What follows is pretty much a steady stream of skits strung together for laughs, but it works because family vacations always feel like exactly that. You plan each day with activities and sometimes—or in Chet’s case every time—something goes wrong. Candy is great at portraying the family man who won’t let the wrench that Roman is get him down and Aykroyd is equal to the task playing boisterous and selfish to keep poking him until his breaking point. The former wants to create memories and the latter wants to be the “cool uncle” even though he cannot relate to his own daughters. Chet starts to feel inadequate and angry and you do begin to wonder if the rest is on Roman’s side until emotions run high enough to run he, Kate, the girls out of Dodge.
Parallel to the familial angst is the requisite teen puppy love you find in almost all Hughes’ scripts with Buck meeting local Cammie (Lucy Deakins). The generic 80s romance score plays each time they’re together for a leitmotif as dated as it is nostalgic. It’s weird because I like this subplot specifically for breaking up the monotony of each vacation check-stop, but it could have been excised without losing too much when you really think about. The days are abbreviated to the point where characters are transported to be where they need to be, so Buck ends up at most family functions anyway. The only instance of overlap is when steak dinner causes him to unwittingly ditch Cammie and not she keeping him from them. Take the romance away and the main plot remains unaltered.
Maybe Cammie was included strictly because she adds emotional drama that isn’t the otherwise alpha male clashing of Chet and Roman. Everyone else who crosses their path is conversely a caricature to give them and us more reasons to chuckle. Britt Leach‘s lightning rod Reg, John Bloom‘s butcher Jimbo, and Robert Prosky‘s Wally each up the ante comically as weirder souls out in the woods than the ones at the center of the story. They provide a little variety for when we start to get tired of the bottled-up family episodes of bears on cars, waterski adventures, and early morning fishing trips. It’s successful because The Great Outdoors never becomes dull—something I could see it easily doing otherwise. Hughes and Deutch even spice up the transitions between passing days with subtitled raccoon chaos for additional silliness.
In the end it’s a vehicle for the top-billed pair of Aykroyd and Candy. Both shticks are running on efficiently high and there’s just enough room to force them into becoming better parents and people to stop everything from going fully into farce. The finale is a bit too overly-emotional/sentimental with the girls getting lost and Roman having to step up for the first time in his life, but an inclusion of the infamous “bald-headed bear” ensures goofiness always returns. Ultimately I like that the sketch comedy bits fit cohesively for no other reason than they all pertain to activities you’d engage in while camping yourself. It feels authentic in its absurdity and you see yourself in the Ripleys, your most abrasive relatives in Roman’s Craig clan. The Hughes heart never wanes and the laughs never stall.