50 Movies for 50 States: Week 14 — Illinois, Film — Curly Sue

Week 14 – Illinois

Curly Sue (1991), directed by John Hughes, written by John Hughes, with James Belushi, Alisan Porter and Kelly Lynch

Ahh … John Hughes. What is there really to say about a man whose movies were — and continue to be — cultural touchstones for people — especially teenagers — all over the world?  In spite of the fact that the majority of Hughes’ films were released in the 1980s, whether it be an adolescent fantasy like Sixteen Candles or a more situation-based comedy like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, his movies are ageless.

Hughes, who died last August, may no longer be with us.

Ferris Bueller, on the other hand, will live forever.

I bonded with others over The Breakfast Club during a day-long in-school suspension in high school. I remain friends to this day with a girl I met working in my college library with whom I shared an affinity for Pretty in Pink. I’m sure it’s not just me. I’m sure others have had their own John Hughes moments of sudden realized togetherness. Maybe it was another one of Hughes’ films with which you experienced your own flash of pop culture synergy. His movies are the types of films everyone’s seen: Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Uncle Buck — those are just the ones that he wrote, produced and directed. His screenplays include National Lampoon’s Vacation, Some Kind of Wonderful, Home Alone and many, many more.

There is one movie though that seems out-of-place on Hughes’ resume. It’s the one film of his over which I find it hard to fathom a group of strangers sharing a collective “Aha!” moment: 1991’s Curly Sue.

Curly Sue?

“You couldn’t find something better to review?” my wife Anna asked me when I told her that I had chosen Curly Sue to represent Illinois.

I mumbled something about how it’d give me an excuse to talk about John Hughes without choosing one of his more obvious films. Anna didn’t realize that Curly Sue was a John Hughes film. A lot of people don’t realize that Curly Sue is a John Hughes film.

Anna was right to question my choice. I learned quickly that Curly Sue can be painful to watch, especially when you place it alongside Hughes’ other films which so many people hold near and dear.

Here’s my advice to those of you who might be tempted to check out Curly Sue: Don’t expect that youthful edginess present in his early to mid 80s films. Don’t expect a comedic genius like John Candy or Steve Martin to keep things interesting — you’re only going to get James Belushi, the other Belushi brother. With that being said, it’s not like it’s the worst movie ever. It’s just kind of there.

John Hughes made Curly Sue on the heels of the surprise success of Home Alone. While Home Alone was a box office success, behind-the-scenes Hughes was feuding with both motion picture studios Paramount and Universal. Paramount had taken Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and allowed it to be made into a television series, much to Hughes’ disappointment. Meanwhile, Uncle Buck was sold by Universal and adapted into a television show. Both shows were panned, and quickly came and went. As an added kick in the teeth, over Hughes’ objections, Universal gave a theatrical release to Career Opportunities, a movie based on one of his old scripts. Piggy-backing on the success of Home Alone, the marketing for Career Opportunities was based around it being written by Hughes. Hughes felt Career Opportunities was an inferior product and damaging to his reputation, which was already smarting from the television debacles.

With his relationship with Paramount in tatters, Hughes — who was 41-years-old at the time — was able to get out of a three picture deal with Universal and make Curly Sue for Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, Curly Sue would be the last movie he would write and direct — the last to bear the title of “A John Hughes Film.”

Why a family flick? Perhaps with Curly Sue, Hughes was attempting to duplicate the precocious kid formula that made Home Alone a hit during the winter of 1990.

As is Hughes’ practice, Curly Sue was shot on location in Chicago. All of Hughes’ films since 1987 have been shot in Chicago or in the greater Chicago area. It was stipulated in his contract.

“L.A. is a real bad place to get a perspective on the country. I never saw anything but the 405 freeway going to and from work. And I realized when I sat down to work I didn’t have anything to write about,” Hughes told The New York Times in a 1991 interview.

Curly Sue is about an orphan, played by 9-year-old Alisan Porter (Parenthood). Sue, named for the Three Stooges character and not because of her trademark curly hair, is a pint-sized con artist raised on the streets by her guardian, Bill Dancer (James Belushi). The story is that Dancer raised Sue as his own daughter, “adopting” her after a one-night stand with her mother — which is called “kidnapping” in some circles.

Arriving in Chicago, Dancer comes up with a scheme to finagle hot meal and cash from high-powered divorce lawyer Grey Ellison, played by Kelly Lynch (Drugstore Cowboy). Dancer pretends to be hit by Ellison’s car and injured, but the plan goes awry when he is really run over by her car. Taken back by Sue’s intrinsic charm, Ellison takes Dancer and Sue in. It’s not long before Ellison begins to fall for both Dancer and Sue, much to the chagrin of Ellison’s boyfriend, Walker McCormick, played by John Getz (The Fly, Blood Simple). Ellison, Dancer and Sue soon form a makeshift family, but the family is threatened when McCormick attempts to have child welfare services take Sue away.

Will everything work out for the good guys in the end? Do you even need to ask? Have you ever seen a John Hughes movie before? Of course you have — and if you have, you don’t need me to answer that question.

Despite a decently-sized marketing campaign, Curly Sue wasn’t a huge hit. It didn’t lose money for Warner Brothers, but it certainly wasn’t the Home Alone-size hit they probably had hoped for. Even though Roger Ebert liked the film, most of the reviews were not kind. Some of the complaints were about the characters themselves, the fact that the movie depends on the audience rooting for what are essentially amoral characters — con artists. I don’t agree. By the end of the movie, Dancer has made a desire to change. Anyone who complains over the film’s loose sense of morals hasn’t watched the whole movie, although I don’t blame them. It took me four attempts to make it to the end of Curly Sue — but I made it to the end ’cause I’m a professional.

My main complaint about Curly Sue is its saccharine plot. Also, there’s my general dislike for Belushi and Lynch. The over-reliance on slapstick humor is kind of weak too. There’s just one too many laughs in Curly Sue that revolve around someone getting punched in the face or kicked in the shin or hit in the head with some object or another. Then again, Sue is named after a Stooges character — so I guess the physical comedy makes sense in that respect. When the jokes don’t involve someone being physically assaulted, they consist of Sue spouting off one-liners — the type which sounded a lot better coming out of the mouth of Macaulay Culkin’s character in Uncle Buck.

Even though she was cute and could sing and act, Curly Sue was pretty much the end of Porter’s career as an child actress, just as it was the end of Hughes’ career as a director. Porter has done some acting as an adult, in addition to writing and making music. She’s also friends with Adam Lambert, the flamboyant American Idol star. Nevertheless, Curly Sue was not a star-making role for Porter, which is a shame, because Porter is one of the only things that makes the movie worth watching. Unfortunately, an adorable kid does not make up for a dull and unimaginative script.

There are a few highlights in Curly Sue. It’s worth mentioning that Getz plays one of the nastiest characters ever in a John Hughes movie. He’s a total douchebag. Ebert mentions in his 1991 review that, in the scene where McCormick calls child welfare services, the audience with whom he was watching the movie let out an audible gasp. I thought that was pretty silly until I watched the movie with Anna — who is not easily swayed by conventional movie sentimentality. She too reacted out loud to the scene. So maybe there really is something there.

Two minor roles are also of note. Steve Carell appears for about 10 seconds as a waiter, credited as Steven Carell. Viveka Davis (who played the little girl Polly in the TV series V) shows up briefly but has a memorable part as Ellison’s maid Trina. To her credit, Davis’s character had a few lines that made me laugh — and in this movie, the laughs were sparse.

Curly Sue isn’t bad. It’s not good. It’s bland — a depressing way to end any person’s directorial career, let alone the career of a man whose films are a part of so many people’s memories. Curly Sue was just the start of Hughes’ descent into uninspired family fare. When Hughes was making the publicity rounds for Curly Sue, he said his next movie would be Bartholomew vs. Neff, a film about feuding neighbors with John Candy and Sylvester Stallone. That movie was never made although a screenplay is floating around somewhere. Instead, Hughes disappeared from the film world. Candy died a few years later. Friends of Hughes say that Candy’s death really shook him up. That may have had something to do with his desire to retire from film making, although the failure of Curly Sue to be a sizable hit may have had something to do with it as well. Maybe Hughes was just fed up with working for the studios and decided to put it all behind him. It’s hard to fault him.

Over the next decade, several more screenplays by Hughes were turned into movies — some published under the pseudonym of Edmont Dantes (the protagonist from The Count of Monte Cristo) — including two sequels to Home Alone, along with Beethoven, Dennis the Menace, Baby’s Day Out and Flubber (I know — real quality stuff). At one time, it was rumored Hughes was considering coming out of retirement to direct what would eventually become the Jennifer Lopez film Maid in Manhattan. That never happened and it’s probably a good thing.

If you’re interested in the mystery of John Hughes’ final years, I suggest checking out a documentary available on Netflix Instant Watch called Don’t You Forget About Me. In it, a few filmmakers go to Illinois to seek out Hughes. It doesn’t get too in-depth regarding his motivation for retiring, but is a fairly interesting retrospect on his career. (Click here to add it to your queue.)

Curly Sue is also available on Netflix Instant Watch. (Click here to add it to your queue.)

Other John Hughes movies available on Netflix Instant Watch:

* The Breakfast Club (Click here to add it to your queue.)

* Uncle Buck (Click here to add it to your queue.)

* All John Hughes movies at Netflix.com

Curly Sue on YouTube

* The complete movie! Hooray for copyright infringement!

* Trailer

* Clip – Curly Sue and company sing “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You”. Cute scene which sets you up for the scene that immediately follows of McCormick calling child protective services. Boo!

Alisan Porter is all over YouTube:

* Alisan Porter, at the age of five, singing “Over the Rainbow” on Star Search

* Here she is, much older, singing a Janis Joplin tune


6 responses to “50 Movies for 50 States: Week 14 — Illinois, Film — Curly Sue

  1. Question for those of you who just surfed in here:

    Google Analytics says that this Curly Sue review I’ve written is the most viewed article on this Web site, http://www.criticalmassesmedia.com. This kind of confounds me, since Curly Sue is not a very popular movie — certainly not as popular as some of the other movies I’ve talked about here. If you’re reading this and you got to this article through Google, as most of you have, what were you looking for when you found this article and what made you decide to click on it?

    I’m legitimately curious, since — when you search for “Curly Sue” through Google — this Web site doesn’t show up until the ninth page of results. In other words, how did you get here?

    I mean, I’m glad you found the site … but was there some Curly Sue resurgence that happened recently that I’m unaware of?

    Many thanks,

    Matt D.


  2. if you’re still curious, it directed me here when I clicked on the first Google Image result of Curly Sue.


  3. Tried it myself and sure enough it works. Man, got a surprising sense of peace from having that mystery explained.


  4. Pingback: Curly Sue | Totally 90s·

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