Forever Young
Genevieve Yue on Curly Sue

On August 6, 2009, the day it was announced that John Hughes had passed away, a tribute to the director appeared in a blog post written by Alison Byrne Fields. For two years in the mid-eighties, Fields had kept up a pen-pal relationship with Hughes after writing him a letter that was, as she explained, less fan mail than an outpouring of teenage angst. The story of their correspondence seems befitting of a Hughes plot: a fifteen-year-old griping about being misunderstood by her English teacher, the established Hollywood hit-maker insisting in response, “I listen. Not to Hollywood. I listen to you. I make these movies for you. Really. No lie. There’s a difference I think you understand.”

This blog entry, titled “Sincerely, John Hughes,” describes an image of the filmmaker familiar to most of us, particularly if we grew up during or soon after the eighties in suburban American. For our rites of passage, he was tending the gate; an adult, perhaps, but one who grasped the exhilaration, confusion, and flat-out weirdness of the teenage years. The high school comedies for which he’s known—Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Weird Science (1985), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) as director, and Pretty in Pink (1986), and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) as screenwriter—reveal someone who knew what it was like to lumber awkwardly down locker-lined corridors, hearing words like “poozer” and “bo-hunk” spoken in a cracked adolescent tenor or the quiet sighs of the painfully self-conscious. “At that age,” Hughes once said, “it feels as good to feel bad as it does to feel good,” and few films before or since have so acutely captured the mixture of comedy and pathos that attends the high school years as Hughes’. How else could he come up with scenes of Ally Sheedy shaking dandruff onto her snowy landscape drawing in The Breakfast Club, or a headgear-clad Joan Cusack trying to drink from a water fountain in Sixteen Candles, if he didn’t know firsthand the strange, turbulent texture of that world?

Fields goes on to describe a phone call she received from Hughes ten years later, after she’d updated him on her grown-up life. He revealed to her his weariness with Hollywood, and a darkening cynicism prompted by the sudden death of his friend John Candy in 1994. Fields and Hughes’ final exchange suggests, in a sense, a movie that Hughes never made, the one that describes what happens after everyone grows up. In reality, however, the films that followed his Brat Pack output fell short of the achievements of that early work. His writing, begun during his stint at National Lampoon, always had an element of gross-out humor and slapstick—think Sixteen Candles’ grandmotherly titty-squeeze, Principal Rooney’s altercation with the Bueller dog in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or Steve Martin accidentally using John Candy’s underwear as a washcloth in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—but these gimmicks later multiplied. She’s Having a Baby (1988), arguably Hughes’s most “adult” film, has its fair share of broad humor including a synchronized lawn-mowing sequence, though its zaniness is diffused somewhat by Kevin Bacon’s more sober voiceovers. “The job, the house, the furniture, the fights: those were the symptoms,” he reflects. “The disease was growing up.” By the time Macaulay Culkin’s iconic Munch-like scream-face in 1990’s Home Alone had appeared, however, Hughes’s writing had become outright cartoonish. Hughes did not direct the latter, but he wrote and produced it, and the film laid the formulaic groundwork of his later works: hokey dialogue, wiggly eyebrows, and lots and lots of concussions.

Worst of all, a treacly sentimentality began to drown out any sincerity Hughes’s scripts might have had. By the early nineties, what were once careful examinations of domestic life became slathered in a thick gloss of generic family-friendliness, and much of his wit was reduced to knees-in-the-nuts jokes. His final directorial outing, 1991’s Curly Sue, was also his most reviled, though in memory, at least, it has been upgraded to the status of ignored. It’s probably just as well; as later writing credits include Baby’s Day Out (1994), Flubber (1997), Maid in Manhattan (2002), and all four Beethoven movies (1992, 1993, 2000, and 2001; the latter two going straight to video), it’s no wonder that Hughes frequently adopted a pseudonym, Edmond Dantes, for such shameless selling out.

With its titular ragamuffin heroine (Alisan Porter) and the scruffy grifter who looks after her, Bill Dancer (Jim Belushi), Curly Sue seems lifted from a Horatio Alger story, and it feels just as out of touch. The pair of vagabonds arrive in Chicago by freight train, and in carrying out their latest con, a feigned car accident, they meet Grey Ellison (Kelly Lynch), a powerful, cutthroat divorce lawyer. Grey, tricked into thinking she’d hit Bill with her Mercedes, takes both of them into her obelisque-adorned penthouse. Though hesitant at first, she’s unable to resist the charms of the dirty-cheeked cherub, and eventually falls for Bill too (after he showers and shaves, of course), neatly completing their rags-to-riches journey. If this doesn’t sound predictable enough, there’s also a decorous Georges Delerue score to embroider tender moments with strings and comedic gaffes with a slinky clarinet reminiscent of the Pink Panther.

The film’s feel-good fuzziness, however, is constantly disrupted by its jarring tone and uneven style. In preparation for their new scam, for example, Bill coaxes Curly Sue to hit him with a two-by-four, insisting that the harder she strikes him, the more she’ll prove his love to him. Moments later, after suffering the first of the film’s nine concussions, he’s lying in a pile of garbage bags, dazed from the powerful punch of Curly Sue’s affections. It’s not clear why, even after he’s actually knocked unconscious by Grey’s car, no one ever takes him to a hospital, but in keeping with the rest of the film, much of what happens doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Curly Sue might have the slick, irreverent appearance of early nineties studio fare, but it’s a jumble of generic tropes and devices, from the Vertigo-zoom on Grey’s concerned face as she thinks about Bill and Curly Sue trudging through the cold, to the quick-fire shopping montage at Marshall Field’s, when Grey and her assistant communicate to the salespeople through a sizeable repertoire of hand gestures, smiles, and grimaces. After a fancy dinner gone awry—Bill actually punches the maitre d’! Twice! And is still allowed to dine at the restaurant!—they introduce Grey to their world of mischief, which includes sneaking into Chicago’s historic Music Box theater to watch, improbably, a 3D Looney Tunes cartoon.

The movie scene in Curly Sue is baffling because no one in the crowded theater seems to know what normal moviegoing behavior is like. Outfitted with anaglyph glasses, the audience moves entirely in sync, apparently ducking from the illusory objects flying from the screen, or inexplicably grabbing at imaginary floating chicken feathers. The film has the spectators so thoroughly entranced that they laugh uproariously at its jokes and, when it’s over, applaud and mouth-whistle wildly. Even Bill, who manages to sneak popcorn and a soda away from a distracted neighbor, pays more attention to what’s happening onscreen than his love interest sitting on the other side of Curly Sue. While the film-within-a-film device is commonly used to highlight a thematic strand (nostalgia for a run-down cinema in Goodbye Dragon Inn, generational estrangement in Tokyo Story) or a psychological trait (Robert De Niro’s maniacal guffaws in Cape Fear, lonely-hearted longing in The Purple Rose of Cairo), here it only underscores the film’s fundamental distortion.

One could argue in its defense that Curly Sue is a fantasy, but there, too, it’s mostly fluff, a Depression-era formula given the thinnest of contemporary veneers. While it may appear Hughesian in its defiant outcasts, class disparity, and Chicago setting, it lacks the exacting detail of his earlier films. Instead of Sixteen Candles’ Sam fretting over the outbreak of a pimple or the geeks of Weird Science toggling the breast size of their computerized Galatea, we get Curly Sue’s smirks, spaghetti-slurps, and catch-phrases like “hubba hubba,” a remark that sounds less impish than oafish. Curly Sue herself may be the film’s biggest problem, or at least the most irritating one. When, for example, she belts out “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the middle of the night, Grey awakens and smiles; I did not. As a dull cross between Annie and Shirley Temple, Curly Sue resembles more the third Stooge she was named after, or the French title of the film, La petite emmerdeuse: “the little shit.” Her fake smiles, made for the benefit of Grey, are indistinguishable from real ones, and as a result Porter’s entire performance seems like a giant hoax, albeit an ineffectual, grating, and vaguely robotic one.

With a different treatment, Curly Sue could have been Hughes’s most serious film, tackling as it does homelessness, class ambition, and the welfare state. The overlooked child of his earlier work—Sam’s forgotten birthday, the fuming sister in Ferris’s shadow, the entire premise of the Home Alone series—exists here as a societal condition. Yet a filthy bus ride seems to be the worst thing that Bill and Curly Sue have ever encountered; aside from a brief visit to a foster home, spurred by a phone call from Grey’s jealous boyfriend, the film shuns the difficult questions it raises. In the end, Curly Sue, by dint of some imperceptible charm, finds herself surrounded by love and not a small amount of money.

What happened to Hughes? In The Breakfast Club, perhaps the director’s most emblematic film, the five students assembled for Saturday detention fight against the stereotypes imposed on them by the hard-nosed vice-principal as well as the social structures of high school itself. Banding together, they discover that each of them is more than they assumed, and they leave still labeled but liberated. Curly Sue’s characters, meanwhile, profit from no insights. Their world is one of scheming and dumb luck, and worse, it’s a place where most people are exactly as they seem.

Curly Sue is not only Hughes’ worst film, but it’s also one that most people have a hard time believing he made. By the time he shot it, he had already left Hollywood, returning with his family to suburban Chicago’s North Shore, where he’d spent his teenage years. Though he continued to write scripts, he withdrew from the public eye. His heart was no longer in it, as Curly Sue so effectively demonstrates. Yet I prefer to think that Hughes knew exactly what he was doing when he made Curly Sue, his parting letter to an industry that both nurtured and exploited him. Beneath the film’s thick layer of sentimental goo lies a deeper cynicism about the nature of wealth and happiness in an otherwise uncaring world. Fortune, it suggests, is a matter of folly, accident, and even exception.

Once, when asked about doing a Breakfast Club sequel, Hughes declined the idea. His refusal perhaps offers a clue to his retreat from filmmaking. “There isn’t anything in their lives after high school relevant to that day,” he said. “It’s like Ferris Bueller. You don’t want to see him today. You’d hate him. He’d either be a bum or a politician.” Could it be that Hughes was, even then, afraid of growing up? As he’s often been compared to J. D. Salinger, who also shied away from celebrity following the popularity of his coming-of-age fictions, it’s easy to imagine Hughes as a kind of Holden Caulfield, trying to catch kids like Alison Byrne Fields before they tumble over the edge. But maybe the fall wouldn’t have been so bad. Maybe if he’d dared to look over the edge, he would have seen what Ferris or any of the teens from Shermer, Illinois, became as adults. Maybe he would have found just as much confusion and complication as in their high school days, and he might have braved, as he once did, making a film about them, or rather for them.