Netflix Court of Appeals: The Great Outdoors

BY MATTHEW BYRD | JULY 17, 2014 5:00 AM

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The appeal of The Great Outdoors, the John Hughes-penned, Howard Deutch-directed 1988 comedy, is something that I’m not sure can be appreciated by the broad audience that film execs lose sleep over.

The setting is not somewhere in the state of Every Town Cookie Cutter U.S.A. It’s a small, economically efficient vacation resort in central Wisconsin. The characters aren’t the unidentifiable, ubiquitous, “normal,” average, all-sound-like-Walter-Cronkite stock characters designed to be from everywhere and therefore nowhere. They’re North Side and west suburban Chicagoans, their vowels go on a little too long, to them it’s pop, not soda, and the Chicago Bears are as integral to their diet as hot dogs sans ketchup.

Those Chicagoans would be Chet (John Candy) and Roman (Dan Aykroyd). Chet’s a working-class guy interested in fishing with his kids, watching bears eat garbage, walking in the woods, and essentially upholding all the traditions his family members maintain on their innumerable treks up north. Roman, his suburban investment banker brother-in-law with a nice Rolex around his wrist, is more interested in jet skiing, cooking up gourmet lobsters, and flaunting his wealth and intelligence to impress those around him. Their families get along just fine — they don’t.

The plot’s really incidental to the whole movie, serving mainly as a backbone to connect several vignettes that will be familiar to the Wisconsin-vacationing Chicagoan: ghost stories at a cabin in the woods, water skiing on the lake, going to a crappy local bar, fishing at the crack of dawn (and not catching a damn thing), cookouts on the beach. All, of course, infused with the slapstick high jinks and humorous set pieces that made Hughes one of the best comedy writers of his era. There’s a particularly great sequence involving a bear without hair on his derriere, a shotgun, and a lamp that works best when discovered for the first time.

If the film sounds hopelessly provincial, that’s because it is. If you haven’t vacationed in Wisconsin at some point in your life, and your home base isn’t Chicago, a lot of the humor will probably seem sophomoric and dull. (It’s not exactly Hughes’s best work; ditto for Candy and Akyroyd.) But I am; I’ve been on vacations like this to places like this with people like Candy and Akyroyd and their kids. Too often, movies will try to go broad in order to go deep at the box office. The Great Outdoors exists in a singular time and place and doesn’t care whether you’re familiar with it or not.

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