July 31, 2009

Underrated MOTM: The Great Outdoors (1988)

In the spirit of summer, let's head outdoors - The Great Outdoors. What surprises me about July's Underrated Movie of the Month isn't just that it has a Rotten Tomatoes critical rating of 38% (it's not listed on MC), but that the reviews themselves were so harshly negative - almost amusingly so.

In the Washington Post, Hal Hinson declared that The Great Outdoors was "just coarse enough, and unfunny enough, to achieve true awfulness. Imagine that it's raining cats and dogs and you're locked in a north woods cabin for weeks with the people you like least, and you'll pretty much have a feel for what it's like to sit through this movie...The gags that spring out of this situation...are all lame variations on the theme of nightmare vacations. It's hard to imagine how this theme could have been executed with less invention...Not even the usually buoyant Candy can keep afloat. For perhaps the first time in his career he looks genuinely unhappy."

The Variety review concluded that the "last third of the film is a real mess," while in the New York Times, Janet Maslin declared that "the collective energy that has gone into making The Great Outdoors probably wouldn't be enough to light a campfire...Though the film never becomes actively unfunny, neither does it do much more than tread water. The raccoons have a better time than the audience will."

Obviously, I disagree with this consensus, and would argue that The Great Outdoors, while at times ridiculous, deserves credit for both its terrific Dan Aykroyd-John Candy pairing and its campy camping spirit. The jokes are cheap and the story doesn't really go anywhere, but it successfully recalls the best and the worst of your camping memories; it's like the camping version of National Lampoon's Vacation. In fact, since John Hughes also wrote all of the Vacation movies, The Great Outdoors really is the missing installment in the Vacation series. Had it starred Chevy Chase, I'd even argue that the movie would be remembered more fondly.

But it didn't star Chevy Chase. It starred two great comic actors (as well as Annette Bening in her feature film debut) performing in perfect tandem with each other. They're basically playing the same versions of themselves from other movies (Candy from Summer Rental, Aykroyd from Tommy Boy), but that doesn't detract from the fun here. My favorite scenes between the Candy and Aykroyd come during the first day, beginning with the first discussion on the patio and ending with the grilling of the lobsters (why would they have lobster instead of fish? It's CA, not Maine!).

Another great food scene comes later on, and can be appreciated for anyone with a male relative who thinks his manhood can be best demonstrated best by gluttonously eating a small animal for no other reason than because they were challenged to do so. Behold the "Old '96er":

So why did the critics come down so hard on The Great Outdoors? What was it that didn't work for them with this Candy-Hughes pairing that did work in both Planes, Trains, & Automobiles (the year before The Great Outdoors) and Uncle Buck (the year after it)? I would guess that it was because The Great Outdoors simply lacks any emotional bent. It's silly and juvenile and in the third act, when we're supposed to learn a lesson about family togetherness and building character and taking the good with the bad, well, we get a really bizarre twist about borrowing money. It's a strange way to end a camping trip, but then, aren't the best memories about camping trips the wackiest ones?


  1. Fun pick, Daniel. I think it's easy to understand why critics were against TGO. It is juvenile. And it's rare that the critics decide juvenile is worth celebrating. (So rare that when it happens it feels false. But that's another conversation.)

    I was 11 when this film came out and its comedy was perfect for me (a backhanded compliment? probably.). But just as much, I was drawn to the mini romance between Chet's son and the waitress. Watching the film now (and I saw it last summer about this time, for the first time in well over a decade) is to see all the reasons their romance will be short-lived. But when you're 11 and summers seem to last forever, that relationship meant something to me. I identified with the awkwardness of Chet's son and feel total agony when he's trapped fishing with his dad and misses the chance to meet up for their date.

    Watching it last summer, those scenes kicked up the nostalgia a bit, but this time I felt for the girl, and what it must be like to fall for these guys from out of town who will be gone in a week or two. That would make for a good movie.

    Anyway, when I was drawn to Adventureland this year, it reminded me a lot of that romance in The Great Outdoors. That's saying something, right?

    Regardless, long live the Old 96er.

  2. "But when you're 11 and summers seem to last forever, that relationship meant something to me." Hehe, thanks for this anecdote about young love, Jason, you little Romeo. Had you not explained it in that way I'd have been surprised that the romance was the part of TGO that connected most with you. I didn't even see TGO in theaters, but I (and I'm sure any guy who watched movies when they were a pre-adolescent) definitely know what you're talking about. It didn't really work for me in Adventureland because the characters seemed so much more complicated and hormonal and annoying.

    Speaking of annoying, the kid's checking of his watch in this Old '96er scene is played up maybe a bit too much. Does he really have to hold it up to his face and use his right hand as if using a stopwatch? Wouldn't he just nervously glance down and look around impatiently, like the third time shown here?

    One bittersweet note - watching John Candy choke down that last piece of steak, it's hard to forget that only six years later, at the age of 44, he would die of heart disease due to advanced atherosclerosis (severely clogged arteries). Being the fat guy played for great comedy here and in a lot of his other movies, but man, it hits a little too close to home in hindsight, like watching a drug scene with Belushi or Farley.

  3. I am no fan of this film, and I agree with the concensus, but you know what? I have my own guilty pleasures that I have found much joy in over the years which have received worse numbers than the ones you just projected here. A little PHANTOM OF THE OPERA anyone? Or how about THE VILLAGE? Or THE LIBERTINE? I love all three. And there are a number of others.

    I am a fan of the National Lampoon films you bring up as a point of comparison (heck my wife just named ANIMAL HOUSE as her #1 film of the 1970's incurring the wrath of the mean old Allan Fish!, so there is a place not only in humerous recollection but in lasting affections.) I will say that this film and its kind are still prefereable to me than that lame Jude Apetow, but I'll hold that for another time. Your fond remembrances and infectious enthusiasm do shine through here Dan. Bravo!

  4. Haha, alright it's out there. This is a guilty pleasure, I can't deny it. Had it been released in 2009 with Martin Lawrence or Kevin James as Chet, I would probably be first in line to pan it. But as Jason observes, the age/life period in which you first see a movie definitely colors your impression of it. Odd that you enjoy the Hughes-penned National Lampoon movies but not as much the Hughes-penned Great Outdoors, though the former do have a bit of a different flavor to them, particularly Animal House.


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