By Natalie Beck
In the 1989 classic film Uncle Buck, written and directed by John Hughes, Midwestern values come to life in this comedy set in the outskirts of Chicago. Filmed primarily in Evanston, Illinois as well as other suburbs and even the city of Chicago, this film subtly captures a Midwestern feel. With John Candy playing “Buck,” the wacky uncle that is estranged from the family, Midwestern values on the family come to life in nothing short of a hilarious good time.
At the onset of the movie, the audience is introduced to a typical Midwestern family of five, with two daughters and a son. The eldest daughter, Tia, plays the role of a difficult teenager, often giving her parents, especially her mother a hard time. One of the earliest examples of this is when the family is gathered around the dinner table eating Chinese food. Tia sarcastically turns to her mother and says, “Oh Mother, however did you cook this delicious meal?” Her mother immediately stares back at her, visibly weary of what the audience assumes is a long struggle between mother and teenage daughter. This scene sets the stage for continuing conflict with Tia and other members of the family, including Uncle Buck.
However, Tia’s cold and sarcastic attitude is quickly explained when it is mentioned that the family moved away from the mother’s side of the family to Chicago because of an opportunity for more money. Tia is clearly the most affected by this move, and it is clear that family values run strong throughout the Midwest if even teenagers are affected by the loss of family. What is even more striking in this sense of loss in Tia is the fact that Tia never once mentions moving away from friends, leaving her old house or neighborhood, or even school. She only references the loss of family members from the move.
In the first plot twist of the movie, the mother received a phone call that her father has had a heart attack. She must go to Indianapolis to see him, and once Tia finds out that her grandfather has had a heart attack, she is very upset. The mother says, “I love my father very much,” and Tia’s response is, “Then why did you move away from him? If my whole family moved away from me, I would have a heart attack, too.” While this is an incredibly harsh response to her grieving mother, it is very clear that this is the response of a girl who misses her family and sees value in being in close proximity to loved ones, comparing a move with a heart attack. This scene also sets up the movie to show that Tia is not just going through a normal teenage angst period, but is actually suffering. With this established so early on, it forces the audience to want to see some sort of resolution come for this character.
This scene also sets up the mother and father to be vulnerable and distressed, which they appropriately are. As the mother and father prepare to leave for Indianapolis, they search through their rolodex for people who can watch the kids. The parents are shown communicating with one another and brain storming different names of who they could call. None of the suggestions are family members until the father suggests, “Hey, what about my brother Buck?” The suggestion is immediately shot down because of Buck’s irresponsibility, but resurfaces after the parents realize they have no one they can turn to in a time of need. This is the point when the mother says, “I am so helpless here.” This is the first time that the audience sees the mother equally upset about the move. This is solidified when her husband convinces her not to get down about the move “again,” signifying that the move has been a hard transition for everyone in the family, because of the loss of their family members.
Within the first few scenes of the movie, Uncle Buck already hits the nail on the head with the importance of family values in the Midwest. Family is not just about staying connected with one another through the internet or over the phone, but is about living in community with one another. Family represents part of everyday life. In reality, for other areas of the country, a move equivalent to the Indianapolis to Chicago move would not be considered a significant move, being only a few hours. However, to Midwestern families, this move is a life-altering decision that leaves families recuperating from the blow.
Eventually, once the parents realize they have to leave and they have no other options, they call Buck. In this scene, it is clear that Buck and his brother are estranged, but that their connection is still genuine. Buck is more than happy to help out. It is clear that Buck is considered a nut case, but that he is still family, and family is all that matters. It is comical to watch the scene where the brothers interact over the phone because the audience knows that the entire plot of the movie was probably created off of the idea of that one crazy, estranged uncle every Midwestern family has. The uncle that everyone knows is unreliable, who is not put together, and may be a little slow in development, but that is still an uncle.
Buck as a Midwestern character is an interesting concept in and of itself. He is clearly a take on a cliché, being unmarried, unemployed, and unmotivated. He even just so happens to live by Wrigley Field, which only adds to this Midwestern character. Watching him reminds me of my uncles and their undying loyalty to Chicago teams, through thick and thin, despite where they move or how bad the team is.
Buck also brings in another interesting character into the movie, and that is Chanice, his love interest. Chanice is much more put together. She has a job, she is responsible, and she wants to get married. She sticks with Buck, even when he is a disappointment, and tries to help pull him together. She embodies the Midwestern values of hard work, while also emphasizing the Midwestern values of family because she wants her own with Buck. She is a nice balance to the figure of Buck, who is rough around the edges and loves his life as a bachelor.
Once Buck agrees to come to the family’s house in the suburbs, the comical scenes start flowing like water. Buck’s crude attitudes pair nicely with his allegiance to his family, often times showing him as a strong protective figure, whether or not his nieces and nephews want it. Within his first few days at the house, Buck manages to put the fear of God into Tia’s boyfriend, confronts Maizy’s principal, who believes Maizy is too much of a dreamer at the age of seven, and punches a clown that shows up to Miles’ birthday party drunk. Buck tries by whatever means necessary to help maintain a happy environment for his nieces and nephews.
Some of the scenes show Buck as a good caretaker, such as when he makes gigantic pancakes for Miles’ birthday. Other times, however, the family life is shown as having a positive influence on Buck. In many of the scenes, he is shown having to do laundry, as well as cook and clean. These are standard caretaker chores that he takes on, but it isn’t until he has to go to the race track to place bets that the true effects of family life have rubbed off on him. Tia runs off to a weekend long party at a friend’s house, leaving Miles and Maizy at the house under Buck’s sole care. Buck has no choice but to take the two children if he wants to make it to the track in time, but before he pulls out of the driveway, he stares back at the two children and realizes that he can’t go through with it. He can’t be a bad influence on his young family members. This is the scene where Buck develops into a responsible adult from a wild, goofy bachelor. Buck calls Chanice for help with the kids, and the audience has a double impact of this scene because of Chanice’s surprised reaction to Buck’s new sense of responsibility.
Buck manages to make it to the party where Buck thinks Tia is with her boyfriend, Bug. By the time Buck makes it to the party, however, Tia has already left because of a fight with Bug. Buck drives up along side Tia walking down the street and offers her a ride. Rather than having another fight like they have been having throughout the movie, Buck consoles her and allows her to be upset about the situation with Bug. This moment is heart-felt and surprisingly sweet for a movie that is predominantly full of jokes and ridiculous humor, with Buck saying that he is really glad he got to known Tia and wants to have a relationship with her. Tia feels the same way, and the scene would be overly sentimental if it wasn’t for the abrupt change in pace when Tia asks what Buck did to Bug.
The scene cuts to Buck opening his trunk and revealing a gagged and bound Bug, screaming for help. Buck forces Bug to apologize to Tia, switching back into his role as protective uncle. Bug apologizes and Buck lets him go. However, as Buck drives away, Bug screams at him from what he thinks is a safe distance. Buck reverses the car and gets a golf club and golf balls out of his trunk. He takes aim and smacks Bug with the balls, one after the other.
While this scene is absolutely hilarious, it does hit on some very real values, which is that family always comes first. Many Midwestern women can attest to the fact that they have at least one crazy family member, an uncle or an aunt, a brother or maybe even a grandparent, who has no bounds for where familial ties and loyalty end. For these family members, no one messes with their family members. For the Russell family, Buck is just that guy. He is so loyal to Tia, that he is willing to take practice swings at an ex-boyfriend.
By the end of the movie, Tia and Buck have called a cease fire and a truce. The younger niece and nephew have fully bonded with buck, and Buck himself has grown and matured, much to the pleasure of Chanice. However, these were not the only character relationships that needed fixing. From the very beginning of the movie, it was clear that Tia and her mother had a strained relationship that was hard for both involved. This relationship, with the help of Buck, and a new found security in family life, is able to be reclaimed at the end of the movie.
The reunion between Tia and her mother happens as the mother and father come back from Indianapolis. Tia is waiting in the hallway while Buck, Chanice, Miles, and Maizy hide in the kitchen. The mother is the first person to walk through the door, and a long stare is held between her and Tia. No words are exchanged; Tia merely walks up to her mother and abruptly hugs her. The tension between the two is cut in half and the father walks in as the mother is letting out sighs of relief and gasps of joy. The final seal on the deal is when the mother says, “It’s going to be a lot different.”
The mere fact that the entire plot can be brought together by a reunion of a mother and a daughter is clearly Midwestern in value. Resolution within the family is the highest relief of stress for the audience, and plot tension is gone. The scene ends with comical relief from Buck, who knocks over pots and pans, but even the comedy cannot overshadow the climatic scene with Tia and her mother.
At the very end of the movie, Chanice and Buck leave the house as the family says their goodbyes. Buck has found himself in the good graces of the Russell’s and with Chanice, because of his newfound maturity. As he is about to leave, he says to Tia, “Hey, maybe next time you’re downtown, maybe we can go get a coffee or something.” Tia smiles and agrees, showing a very different Tia from the very beginning of the movie who was cold and sarcastic.
In general, this scene seems to show that the only remedy for Tia’s loss of family is to find new family to unite with. No new friends or boyfriends could replace family members for this teenager, or for the entire Russell family. The movie seems to suggest that even the oddball uncle can bring together a broken family, making things better. But Midwesterners know that it isn’t about an oddball uncle coming in to save the day, but about family members coming together to form bonds that are so essential to the Midwestern way of life. As a Midwesterner myself, I can testify that nothing can replace family, except maybe more family.