Monday, December 26, 2005


From the Vault: Dutch

Wiping sweat from his brow, the young man hesitantly enters his boss's office. "Mr. Hughes," he says meekly. "There's a problem with the Script-O-Matic."

The writer-director-producer-hyphenate king of self-plagiarism, John Hughes, looks up from the magazine he's reading. "Well, what is it?"

"It's the setting. It's not giving us Chicago, it's saying Atlanta," the aspiring screenwriter/lackey gulps as he addresses the writer of Home Alone and The Breakfast Club.

Hughes says nothing and accompanies the young man into the room filled with that electronic wonder, the Script-O-Matic — the machine that Hughes invented following his early successes with films starring Molly Ringwald. To commemorate her contribution to his career, Hughes even named this particular model after her.

"Kid, there's no problem with this machine. This is the Planes, Trains and Automobiles scenario. What do you think the Thanksgiving reference was for? They start in Atlanta, but they drive to Chicago."

Thus, Dutch was about to be born. The beeps and whistles of Molly the Script-O-Matic continue, spewing forth the ingredients of yet another potentially successful yet wholly manufactured product from John Hughes.

Young boys were hot after Home Alone, so Molly advises that a young male be involved, preferably with a blue-collar Uncle Buck-type character. Molly even suggests that the relationship between the hateful older daughter from Uncle Buck be reproduced, only with a young boy instead.

"Mr. Hughes, we've hit another snag. John Candy is unavailable," Hughes' assistant says nervously.

"Even for a cameo?" Hughes replies, discouraged.

"Yes. Perhaps we could get Al Bundy from Married ... With Children instead," the young man suggests.

"Brilliant idea. Call his agent after you finish the story treatment," Hughes orders.

Molly churns on, lifting the clash of classes from The Breakfast Club and the once-enjoyable but now tiresome "ha ha" musical cues that Hughes first used in Sixteen Candles.

"Mr. Hughes," the assistant calls. "Sorry to disturb you again, but Molly wants to know if Dutch should be a heartwarmer or slapstick?"

"Why not both?"

Of course, the above was just a speculative dramatization, make-believe designed to illustrate this review's larger point that once again John Hughes shows diminishing returns by his refusal — or inability — to move to new territory.

In the case of Dutch, a pair of passable performances get undermined by the schizophrenic screenplay. O'Neill does well distancing himself from Al Bundy and Ethan Randall is OK as the snobbish and troubled young man who becomes O'Neill's cross-country traveling companion.

The story, such as it is, concerns Dutch (O'Neill), the kid's mother's boyfriend, taking Doyle (Randall) to his mom's for Thanksgiving. Doyle resents the fact that his mother (a wasted JoBeth Williams) divorced his heel of a father (Christopher McDonald) and Doyle channels his resentment into anger toward the whole world. McDonald, Geena Davis' jerk of a husband in Thelma & Louise, basically plays the same character here, only upgrading him in class from blue collar origins to pampered ones.

This film's particular problem is that it sets out to be both sentimental and uproarious and misses on both counts, failing to elicit laughs from gags about cots and ruining potentially touching moments with an overblown musical score.

The somber and serious score makes things even worse when it is counterbalanced with Hughes' "funny" musical steals as when the soundtrack laughs at Doyle's perusal of nude playing cards before switching to a shot of Dutch looking on approvingly and lovingly. Dutch doesn't particularly insult the audience's sensibilities or intelligence, it's just not funny or touching.

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