Chet Ripley (John Candy) wants to have a nice vacation up at the lake with his wife (Stephanie Faracy) and their two sons, Buck (Chris Young) and Ben (Ian Giatti). Unfortunately, no sooner has he arrived than the vacation is crashed by Chet’s sister-in-law (Annette Bening, making her film debut) and her husband, Roman (Dan Aykroyd). Roman represents everything that that the mild-mannered Chet hates. Roman is loud, obnoxious, and obsessed with showing off his wealth. Roman knows nothing about how to survive in the great outdoors and he treats Chet like he’s a loser but, for the sake of giving his family a good vacation, Chet tries to get along with Roman. At first, it doesn’t work but eventually, Chet and Roman have to team up to find Roman’s daughters and deal with not only a bear but also talking raccoons. Meanwhile, Buck falls in love with local girl, Cammie (Lucy Deakins). I imagine the same can be said of a lot of people who caught this film on HBO when they were twelve.
The Great Outdoors is very much a comedy of the late 80s. Roman may be a crass Yuppie but it doesn’t appear that Chet is suffering financially either. The humor is broad and physical but the film never resorts to the gross-out style that has since come to define cinematic comedy. It’s a film that makes fun of the obligations of family life while also celebrating them and you won’t be shocked to learn that the script was written by John Hughes. John Candy is likable and Dan Aykroyd has a demented twinkle in his eye.
It’s not a bad movie but I just wish it had been funnier. Don’t get me wrong. When you’re a kid and you come across The Great Outdoors on cable, it’s hilarious because it’s got John Candy waterskiing and a bear and, of course, the talking raccoons. Watching it as an adult, though, it’s easier to see just how much the material and the film’s family-safe approach holds back both Candy and especially Aykroyd. Both of them were capable of being wild comedic performance but, in The Great Outdoors, the movie doesn’t let either one of them really go crazy and that’s too bad. Instead of being a showcase for the best of SNL and SCTV, it becomes an amusing but ultimately very safe family comedy. (Arguably, Hollywood never really figured out the best way to use Candy and Aykroyd’s comedic talents, though Candy’s films before his untimely death suggested that he was on the verge of a genuine breakthrough.)
I did laugh when I rewatched The Great Outdoors but I didn’t laugh as much as I did when I was a kid. Now, I feel old and I’m thinking about how unfortunate it is that John Candy died before production could start on the biopic of Fatty Arbuckle that Candy was tentatively set to star in. Much like Phil Hartman, it’s hard to watch John Candy today without thinking about how he was taken when he was on the verge of probably doing what would have been his best work.
Time to cheer myself up with What About Bob?