No Thanks, I'm Driving

Natalie (Jo Beth Williams) has a problem. It's her son, Doyle (Ethan Randall), a sullen, abusive kid who blames his parents' divorce on his virtuous mother and apotheosizes his rich scumbag father Reed (Christopher McDonald, who played Geena Davis's poor scumbag husband Daryl in Thelma and Louise). When Dad skips out on his commitment to spend Thanksgiving with the boy, Mom invites Doyle home to Chicago, but he won't come. At Natalie's request, her new boyfriend, the kind but unrefined Dutch (Ed O'Neill, from Married...With Children), volunteers to go meet the boy at his Georgia boarding school and drive him home, partly because he loves Natalie, and partly because he's just that kind of stand-up, no-nonsense guy. Welcome to the cliche -drenched world of Dutch, written and produced by teen-savvy auteur John Hughes.

Dutch, that big-hearted galoot, thinks picking up the boy will be as simple as a walk in the park. But his first meeting with Doyle ends in disaster, as he's attacked with a dart gun, a golf club, and a series of vicious sucker punches. Dutch fights back by hog-tying Doyle across a hockey stick, carrying him out of the academy, and throwing him, still bound, into the back of the car. Doyle doesn't get over the shame of the abduction easily, and he hates Dutch for being crude and - gasp! - working class. Also, he's spoiled rotten and used to getting his way. So when he starts to fight back, it's up to Dutch to tame the hellion, to bring him from trussed to trust with an entirely unoriginal dose of tough love.

As Doyle, Randall neatly fails in his attempt to become the next McCauley Culkin. He's more like the young Charles Manson, an entirely irresponsible sociopath whose cruelty can hardly be explained away by his unfortunate family circumstance. Trapped next to such a horrible little boy, O'Neill seems able to communicate only two states, crudity and idiocy, and they're perfect matches for the character of Dutch, who is more likely to challenge Doyle to a fight or insult him than strike up a conversation. "What are you going to do for Thanksgiving?" he asks. "Watch the football game, make a turkey sandwich, hang yourself in the toilet?" This kind of witty dialogue persists, from Dutch's constant affirmations that he can beat Doyle in hand-to-hand combat to the frustrated disclaimer: "I don't care if you live, die, or grow mushrooms in your crack."

Unsurprisingly, the brat slowly begins to come around; surprisingly, Hughes isn't even able to hold the film at the level of inoffensive tripe. It's as if he's trying a new negative-affirmation strategy for assuring that audiences identify with Dutch; to increase the hero's likability, he's stripped the remaining characters of all humanity. Doyle is inhuman. Natalie is as bland as sand. And there are even two ridiculous teenybopper hookers - Ari Meyers (Emma in CBS's Kate and Allie) and E.G. Daily (Dottie in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure) - who drift into the plot for the sole purpose of furnishing Doyle with a liberating

erection.
Factory-packed from the Hughes assembly line and already staling, Dutch advances the platitude that people of different backgrounds can come together and understand one another, and then refuses even to undertake the responsibility of making its characters believable. From the first moment of forced tenderness between Doyle and Dutch to an absurd multiracial powwow in a dispossessed-persons shelter, the movie reeks of the Reagan-era superficiality that has become so commonplace in American cinema. (The movie even evokes the great oversimplifier himself, with a titular nod to his nickname.) Director Peter Faiman, an Australian import who manned the first Crocodile Dundee for Paul Hogan in 1986, is virtually invisible. And Hughes himself, who started as a moderately funny scriptwriter (National Lampoon's Vacation, Mr. Mom) and peaked as a mid-Eighties juvenile Xerox machine ( Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off), continues to sink deeper into the mire of his own Frank Capra delusion, forgetting that he has none of Capra's edge or wit. Hey, John, wake up: It's a wonderful lie.

 
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