Looking Back: Dutch (1991)

There’s always been an edge to the works of John Hughes and to a surprising degree. Most remember the Chicago-based screenwriter as the author of definitively 80’s teen comedy romances. He’s the man who gave us “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Weird Science,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Some Kind of Wonderful,” to name a few of his most well known. Others will hear the name John Hughes and go right to “Home Alone,” the surprise blockbuster that he wrote. Then there’s a few surprises, like the essential “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and the crass classics, “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “Uncle Buck.” What many of these have in common is an emphasis on character, a satire of suburbia, narratives about characters separated by economic differences, and stories of men and women on journeys of self discovery. These movies are beloved by their fan base and, despite most of them being PG or PG-13, they’re totally un-PC, highly profane and casually vulgar.

After “Home Alone,” Hughes got kind of lost in the success of that film and wrote a series of faux knockoffs, like “Baby’s Day Off,” “Dennis the Menace” and the official remake/quasi-sequel “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” The release of “Dutch” is unique in that it was written but not directed by Hughes and came the same year as two other Hughes-penned flops, “Career Opportunities” and “Curly Sue.” “Dutch” is better than both of them and not a bad Thanksgiving-themed comedy. It was the last film helmed by “Crocodile Dundee” director Peter Faiman (who does a fine job). I like “Dutch” as much as any movie with Yello on the soundtrack, but it has a few speed bumps that keep it from being among Hughes’ best.

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Ed O’Neill stars as Dutch Dooley, the crude but lovable working class boyfriend of Natalie Standish (JoBeth Williams). Natalie’s mean-as-a-snake son, Doyle (Ethan Randall) is holed up in boarding school and takes after his equally snooty and gleefully cruel father (Christopher McDonald, whose made a great career of playing these kind of characters). Dutch assures Natalie that he will pick up Doyle from school, take him on a road trip and bond with the boy. Their trip begins as an abduction, as Doyle refuses to be in Dutch’s care. From there, their trip goes from a game of one-upmanship to a struggle for survival.

Much of this is overly familiar, as pieces of “Uncle Buck” and “Home Alone” are fused into the plot of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (Hughes’ best). The grit in Hughes’ earlier works is also on hand and it sometimes makes for a mean spirited movie. Here’s a PG movie in which the young Doyle has an encounter with a prostitute (it’s off camera and mostly suggested but still a bit much for this movie). The Looney Tunes-level violence of “Home Alone” is a bit rough here, as though Hughes felt he had to up the ante after that movie (its sequel was, likewise, even more brutal). The minute we see McDonald is playing Doyle’s father with a Snidely Whiplash mustache, the film establishes the angle of a social status war but much of it plays out with as much subtlety as “Caddyshack.”

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As good as O’Neill is here, the movie seems to have been fashioned for someone else. From the very first scene, it’s hard to imagine that the title role of “Dutch” wasn’t offered to John Candy. In fact, with some slight screenplay adjustments, this could have easily been “Uncle Buck 2.” O’Neill’s introductory line is Williams’ declaring, “Oh, you’ll know him when you’ll see him.” We then cut to O’Neill brandishing a cigar and chased by a dog outside of a posh country club. It feels like material Candy could have done with one hand tied behind his back.

It’s really saying something that not only is O’Neill in great form but his co-star, Randall (who now goes by Ethan Embry and co-starred alongside O’Neill in the 2003 “Dragnet” TV revival), is equally up to the task. In the early scenes, Doyle is totally loathsome and not in a cute kid way, either. Macaulay Culkin might have found a way to make this kid lovable deep down but not Randall, who taps into his character’s cold, haughty, developing sociopathic qualities. It’s no spoiler that, over the course of the journey that the kid had a gradual change of heart. What’s surprising is how good this section of the film is.

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Following one hit and miss slapstick set piece after another, we get to Dutch and Doyle staying at a homeless shelter. Hughes goes shamelessly for the heartstrings here but he earns it. Instead of more comic violence, we get a nod to Chaplin’s “The Kid,” with Doyle connecting to a child on the exact opposite of his economic status. The scenes are so good, they almost salvage the prior bits that didn’t work. Of course, not to allow genuine pathos take over the movie (as he brilliantly did with the final scenes of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”), Hughes ends it all with someone getting shot in the butt with a pellet gun. It’s for comic effect but, again, a movie with this much heart has far too much blunt force trauma.

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