Uncle Buck and the State of Family Films

Uncle Buck starring John CandyGuest blogger Jason Taylor writes:

As I write this article, I’ve just popped in a DVD of Uncle Buck, the 1989 comedy from John Hughes starring John Candy as a hapless but loveable man tasked with watching his nieces and nephew while their parents are out of town. However, being only five minutes into the movie, one of the first things that struck me was just how much of a product Uncle Buck is of its time. There was a glorious era somewhere between 1980 and 1995 where you could take your kids to see a movie, and not find a watered-down, unrecognizably sanitized version of life that you can never imagine living in, or wanting to live in. There was something about the movies centered around the “family market” during those 15 years that made them so different than what passes for entertainment today, that watching one of those movies makes you feel a sort of nostalgia for them.

Now, things have changed quite a bit in the last 15 years or so, and I’m sure that’s partly responsible for the lack of family entertainment that appeals to both children and their parents. With the retirement of John Hughes, writer and director of Uncle Buck (as well as many of the better family movies of that era) in the early ’90s, in addition to a suddenly harsher MPAA, it feels like many filmmakers just stopped trying to please both audiences. But what is it that made those movies so special to begin with? Was it the realistic and relatable characters who never seemed to talk down to their target audience, often even going so far as sticking up for the downtrodden youth of America? Well, maybe that had something to do with it, but I think the main thing that made all these movies so great was, obviously, the incredible amount of dirty jokes and cursing.

When it comes to sex and swearing in family films, the age was never more golden than it was in the ’80s. Within the first 10 minutes of Uncle Buck, words like “shit”, “dick” are thrown around like nothing, and an entire conversation is held about the word “balls” by a then 8-year-old Macaulay Culkin, and that’s before the film moves on to several jokes about such varied subjects as teen pregnancy, sex toys, ritual killing, and John Candy having sex with a washing machine. Not only do I think this kind of explicit humor appeals to both adults and kids, but it doesn’t try to shield its younger audience from the stuff they’ll inevitably experience. If, for some reason, a topless woman can jump up and down on screen for the sake of comedy in Airplane, which was released with a “PG” rating in 1980, then I’ve got to wonder what exactly has changed so much that that would make it get an “R” today? I mean, Steven Spielberg even had Elliot use the phrase “penis breath” in E.T. almost 30 years ago, and you’re telling me that they had to censor the titular lyric of the prominently-used AC/DC song “Highway to Hell” in last year’s Megamind? Come on!

Jason Taylor is an independent filmmaker from Pennsylvania who has seen more than 2000 movies. You can read more of his writing at That Was Junk.

  • http://www.moviesunlimited.com Jason Marcewicz

    First of all, as a huge Uncle Buck fan, I take umbrage with you associating this film with dick jokes. (Surely, John Hughes would be rolling in his grave…) It does have its share of curse words, but this and other Hughes movies focus mainly on the head on teens’ shoulders, not the one between their legs.
    That notwithstanding, you’re actually lamenting the fact that curse words are not used in PG films nowadays? For the record, that’s for kids under 13. (Because PG-13 does allow for violence, nudity, sensuality, language, drug use, etc.)
    So your major beef with the film industry is that pre-teens are somehow missing out? Well, I guess I’m a prude if I agree they’ll have to stay deprived of such adult content…that is, unless they manage to view TV at any time of day or night.

  • mike jaral

    movies like “trains, plains, and automobiles” probably fall into this time range, so I feel that there our movies out there that are most fitting for all ages. the younger generation may get more of a thrill by hearing such words, but as you get older, seems to go right by you. this might be a very bad thing for kids growing up. look at the thinking of todays future adults!

  • Charles H

    “Uncle Buck”? A “family” film?? Seriously?? What kind of family did you grow up in? It’s a funny movie, but it sooooo isn’t a family movie. It’s very much adult comedy. At the very minimum, mid to late teens comedy, as were the majority (if not all) of John Hughes’ films. (That was, after all, his target audience.) “Uncle Buck” wasn’t meant for family bonding/sharing time… not in any movie era. And there are still movies made like this one. “American Pie”. That one had plenty of father/son talks with plenty of “dick” and “shit” usage. Very funny. “Transformers”. Remember the scene where the mother thinks the son is masturbating, because he won’t open the bedroom door? That was a very funny scene. Watch more movies, then blog.

  • Dolores Tamoria

    Hollywood went into the toilet with the Violence, Sex and Dirty Dialog. When they went to REALITY
    too much “Special Effects” at the sake of actual ACTING. Other than show off their bodies, vulgarity and open drugged and promiscuous living there is very little to praise about todays offerings. I don’t waste my money on them.

  • Gary Vidmar

    Pop-culture profanity is certainly not a thing of the past in family films. Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks still manage to pander to suburban families eager for a van trip to the multiplex with trendy kiddie vulgarity (farts, poop and cussing innuendos), which is generally part of the mix as long as it comes with the requisite dose of schmaltzy platitudes and bourgeois values. Now is certainly a golden age for the middle-class family box office – revenues are tremendous and the glut of assorted computer-generated schtick is higher than ever. Cartoon life lessons anyone?

  • llsee

    I am continuously dumbfounded that in this day and age, when children grow up faster and faster, American’s more and more have an infantile view of children. It sometimes seems that a great many people think that children exist in a bubble or glass box, happily innocent and free of any thoughts of sex, until suddenly at 18, they spring forth fully grown! And this despite the fact that they know from their own experience that it is not true.

    Today, when every 5th grader in the country knows the meaning of, and uses(sometimes prodigiously)the “F” word, nary a single one can be in a PG movie. Somehow we have decided that sadism and violence are more suitable subjects for youth movies than depictions of sexuality.

    So, yes, ‘Uncle Buck’ is indeed a family movie, because it depicted a family with all of the bruises and scars and rough spots that real families have. And John Hughes would never be able to make his movies today, now that the powers have decided to adopt a candy-cane, unicorn view of life and families. They feel that real people, with real emotions and feelings are too harsh for the public to watch.

  • Mike Oldfield

    I totally agree. “Uncle Buck” could have been a very entertaining film if they had left out the gutter language. But, what can you expect from the like of John Hughes? That’s the way Hollywood people talk and they assume that the rest of us spew forth obscenities on every occasion. There was a movement a few years ago to release DVD’s of new movies with the sex, gory violence and swearing edited out. Sounded like the perfect answer. Then came the whole censorship argument from Hollywood…”How dare you destroy my film by removing certain words!!”
    ..and nice clean movies disappeared.

  • Tiny Tim

    The great mystery to me of Uncle Buck is how Jean Louisa Kelly did not become a major star. Instead we got that annoying little delinquent Macauley Culkin. The next time I saw Kelly was on a commercial for a long-distance company, and although I didn’t recognize her at first whe was mesmerizing there as well. She was a major, major babe, and she could act as well as any of the dozen other babe-ettes who were fighting for roles at that time. Hoolywood definitely failed on that one.

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