Only the Lonely

Whose leg is that in behind Candy? It's completely wrong for Sheedy's position.
Only the Lonely. Hughes Entertainment 1991.

Before watching the movie:

From what I can tell from summaries, this movie covers several years of John Candy sneaking a relationship/engagement behind his mother’s back. The length of time that seems to be involved is throwing me off so I have no idea what to expect from the plot.

It’s not even readily apparent why his character has to hide his lover from his mother, but from some minor things on IMDB I glean that there’s a strong Irish-American element, so my guess is that O’Hara’s character is a very traditional Irish mother and Sheedy’s is not Irish enough or Catholic enough or something for her.

I expect good things from a movie written and directed by Chris Columbus and produced by John Hughes.They both have a strong track record on earnest portrayals of life and family.

After watching the movie:

Danny Muldoon is a police officer in his late 30s living with his Irish-born mother Rose. He looks after her and she cooks and cleans for him. Rose has strong ethnic prejudices about just about every part of Europe, and always speaks her mind about them, which Danny tries to shrug off. When a pair of old drunks liberate their dead friend from the funeral home for one last drink, Danny steps in to keep the dispute with the funeral director civil, and notices the director’s shy daughter Theresa. Theresa does makeup on the corpses for her father and really prefers the silence of the dead, but she likes Danny well enough and agrees to go out with him. After an awkward period of getting comfortable talking with him, the relationship blossoms into something surprisingly special, but Theresa’s Sicilian/Polish heritage gives Rose the perfect excuse to dislike her, and Danny is forced to choose between his mother and his new girlfriend.

I was wrong about the time scale of the movie. It runs from about late summer to Christmas in one year. Danny and Theresa just move that fast because their relationship is the best that either of them has ever had and their speedy engagement and rushed wedding day is because Danny makes a huge display of choosing Theresa over his mother. There’s only one scene where Danny really has to hide Theresa (literally Theresa, not the relationship) from Rose, and that’s because Theresa ended up staying overnight while Rose was out of town and then Rose returned early. The conflict is much more realistic as Rose disapproving of a relationship she knows about than as Danny trying to keep a secret double life.

Theresa’s introversion is surprisingly realistic. It’s quite clear that she wants to engage with others, but can’t get up the nerve to talk to them herself, and is at the same time pleased and terrified that Danny comes to talk to her. She can’t say more about herself than her favorite color on their first date, but makes an effort to say afterward that she enjoyed herself anyway, and they could go out again. I can even read her being more talkative with others later as deriving confidence from her relationship with Danny, and it still takes a barrage of antagonism from Rose to get her to start speaking up for herself when she has a problem. The only thing missing is her needing to be alone to recharge after those outbursts, but the story isn’t about her. Nobody on screen is this introverted, but Theresa demonstrates how this representation can make interesting drama and characterization. I never expected to see a John Candy vehicle and identify with someone else’s character more.

Of course, the central relationship in the story is Danny and Rose. It fully realizes the tension of being tied to an uncomfortably outspoken person by mutual need (or belief of need), and how the “harmless” prejudices can harm. Danny takes care of his mother because his brother got married and moved out ages ago, and Danny is all she has left. Rose takes care of Danny because she always has and it’s convenient for him. They could both do fine without each other, but they’re caught in the inertia and fearing the worst about being separated.

I’m very fond of Mittyesque flights of fancy, and one element of this movie I enjoyed is the way it shows Danny’s imagination running wild concocting nightmare scenarios of something happening to Rose because he wasn’t there. The oddest thing though is that one of them is set off by a baker keeping vanilla extract in a drinking flask for some reason, but it doesn’t feel quite too forced to justify a sequence imagining Rose getting a ride home from a drunk friend.

I was struck by just how well-dressed Candy is in this movie. He rarely looks like a slob on camera, but I particularly noticed how good he looks in absolutely everything he wears. It helps that aside from his police uniform, the only thing he wears that isn’t the style I wish I had is a fur-collared overcoat. Most of the movie puts him in collared shirts and sweater vests or ties, but they can get away with the sweater vests because it’s fall/winter in Chicago. He doesn’t seem to have much money as a policeman, but he still has a seemingly endless collection of great clothes and can buy a $700 suit on a whim (though it’s a stretch for him) and follow it up with a lavish engagement ring, so I guess he’s Hollywood broke.

It might be a bit scandalous to sum up this plot as a “love triangle”, but that’s pretty much what it is. As McKee noted, the only difference between a buddy movie and a romance is whether the characters might go to bed, so I think a story of a man torn between a family member and a love interest qualifies as a love triangle in the basest plot sense.  But inside that structure, Columbus has written a story of charm, mirth, frustration, and anguish. The little details matter in this story, making it all the more real. The script and actors came together to create a wonderful little story about flawed humans that can’t be done justice by a plot summary. It’s too bad the main reason this hasn’t been totally forgotten is because it’s one of John Candy’s less legendary works, because the interpersonal dynamics make this just as timeless as Columbus and Hughes’s better known works. A little hidden gem with big players.

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