If you are of a certain age, the very name John Hughes meant something to you once. Hughes, who died Thursday at the age of 59, later became the hack writer-producer of indefensible comedies like Home Alone and (shudder) The Great Outdoors, and directed treacly crap like Curly Sue. But for a three-year run in the mid-eighties, he was the go-to guy for teen angst, a trusted brand name for the Clearasil set.
He achieved this primarily with three movies he wrote and directed--Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, as well as Pretty In Pink, which he wrote and produced and essentially ghost directed. Taking their characters and their all-too-common travails seriously, whether they were going through first love, negotiating high school cliques or dealing with parental pressure, Hughes elevated teenage life to the stuff of high tragedy; his films were especially notable since most depictions of teenagers on screen at the time either depicted them as the noxious horndogs of the Porky's series or fodder for masked killers in slasher epics.
The Hughes formula was hugely successful and amazingly influential--spiritually, he helped father everything from My So-Called Life to Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Superbad. The thing is, though, all three of those things are so much better than anything Hughes ever did. However significant his work seemed at the time, it wasn't really very good.
Oh, Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller are still watchable, though they have many wince-inducing moments. But my God, has anyone actually watched The Breakfast Club lately? It's painfully bad, with scattered moments of insight undermined by an embarrassing sense of self-importance. One of the genuinely admirable qualities of Sixteen Candles was Hughes' insistence on casting real, gawky teenagers like Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, a virtually unheard of tactic in American movies at the time. Ringwald and Hall returned for The Breakfast Club, but the other actors had clearly passed their high school days, especially Judd Nelson, whose hilariously overwrought performance (the finest actor since Elmo Lincoln!) is unfortunately showcased by Hughes--Nelson gets all the big dramatic moments and the final iconic freeze-frame.
I have a certain fondness for Hughes' teen ouevre because, well, I was the right age for it. But today's teenagers would most likely sneer at the whole shebang, wondering why anybody bothered. And they'd be right to do so. For somebody who once burned so brightly, Hughes disappeared fast. He hadn't directed a movie since 1991, and honestly, had anybody even noticed he was gone?