Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 15, 2020)
As I’ve noted in other reviews, after 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful, John Hughes largely abandoned the high school milieu that served him so well. With that same year’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Hughes began to embrace films that focused on adult characters, and that trend continued with 1988’s The Great Outdoors.
Chet Ripley (John Candy) lives outside of Chicago with his wife Connie (Stephanie Faracy) and adolescent sons Buck (Chris Young) and Benny (Ian Giatti). As a kid, Chet’s family would retreat to a tranquil lakeside Wisconsin resort, so he takes his clan for a sedate return to nature.
Alas, this doesn’t go as planned because Connie’s sister Kate (Annette Bening) arrives with her husband Roman (Dan Aykroyd) and their twin daughters Mara (Rebecca Gordon) and Cara (Hilary Gordon). Roman presents an obnoxious, overbearing personality, so he and Chet butt heads during this vacation.
When I referred to Planes as Hughes’ foray into adult-focused filmmaking, that wasn’t really true. After all, Hughes wrote two 1983 hits, Mr. Mom and Vacation, both of which concentrated on middle-aged protagonists.
Of course, both also emphasized families, and Outdoors follows that path. On the surface, it feels like a riff on the same template as Hughes’ prior flick, 1987’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles, as the two films feature mismatched protagonists.
Candy starred in both, and superficially, it looks like Outdoors flips his characters. In Planes, Candy portrayed the lout with no filter who irritated the buttoned-up Steve Martin every step of the way.
Based on the movie’s synopsis, one expects Chet to follow that Steve Martin template, and Roman should become the annoying buffoon. Although Outdoors tells us this is the case, the actual film doesn’t bear out this contrast.
Honestly, Chet comes across as the bigger bonehead of the two. He constantly makes stupid decisions and acts in ways that seem misguided at best.
Strangely, Outdoors gives Roman little to do. Sure, he occasionally acts in obnoxious ways, but Chet remains the focal point, and he gives us the majority of the movie’s moronic choices.
At its heart, I think Outdoors wants to make Chet a riff on Vacation’s Clark Griswold, a well-meaning family man who just wants his clan to enjoy themselves and create fond memories. However, Clark’s errors tend to come from the way he misreads situations, whereas Chet just seems incompetent.
As noted, we really don’t get the necessary contrast between Chet and Roman. Because Aykroyd plays the latter with a grating accent, I guess the filmmakers assume we’ll dislike him, but the actual character never seems any more problematic than Chet.
It might help if Outdoors turned Roman’s whole family into irritants to add to comedic potential, but it doesn’t. Kate seems wholly normal, and despite some efforts to paint the red-headed twins as freaks, they never feel especially off-putting or odd.
Like Vacation, Outdoors lacks much of a plot. Both simply rely on the throughline related to a family’s ill-fated attempts at a fun summer, without much else as backbone.
That said, Vacation benefits from its narrative as Clark’s obsessive quest to get to Wally World, and his gradual mental breakdown along the way adds to the story. No similar story beats materialize in Outdoors, so Chet feels limp and bland from start to finish.
If the various situations produced laughs, these issues would matter less, but Outdoors comes free from all but the most minor chuckles. This shocks me, as I can’t figure out how talents like Candy and Aykroyd fail to locate at least some mirth here.
But they don’t. Candy feels miscast as the lead, and Aykroyd does little more than rely on that annoying accent to attempt hilarity. Neither succeeds, and their dull performances create a hole at the center of this effort.
Not that the filmmakers help, as director Howard Deutch creates a bizarre mish-mash that never gels. While we mainly focus on the impotent conflict between Chet and Roman, Outdoors also splits off to Buck’s attempts to woo local girl Cammie (Lucy Deakins).
Buck’s tedious and pointless attempts, I should say, as these add zilch to the movie. I don’t know why Hughes and Deutch felt the need to toss in this misbegotten plot thread, but it feels like it comes from a different film and it only damages an already problematic flick.
Outdoors also attempts hilarity with the antics of local raccoons, and to accentuate this ‘humor”, subtitles translate their chittering. Amazingly, this ends up even less funny than it sounds – and it sounds idiotic.
With Planes and Wonderful, Hughes enjoyed a good 1987, but with Outdoors and She’s Having a Baby, 1988 found him in the crapper. I prefer Outdoors to the borderline unwatchable Baby, but both show the filmmaker at his nadir.
Note: a tag scene appears after the end credits.