What is the statute of limitations for animal cruelty? In The Great Outdoors (1988), there is a legend, told as a ghost story by dad Chester “Chet” Ripley (John Candy), of a giant grizzly bear. During his honeymoon on the same lake at which his family is currently vacationing, he claims to have shot the fur off the top of the bruin. If you watch all the way through the credits as I did (because, why not?), you will notice that said bear is what seems to be a trained animal named “Bart the Bear.” It is the genuine article, and massive. The entire time it is on the screen, all I could think was, “You poor thing. You must have hated having those prosthetics glued to you.” Wait, prosthetics? Yes, it is Jody the Bald-Headed Bear in the film, and to make it look like it took a shotgun blast to the noggin, they had to affix an obviously plastic skull to the top of its head. That is one. The other comes on its butt as it takes another wound in its posterior towards the end. And this is today’s movie, a bear’s butt.
Before tangling with bears, the Ripley family must drive to The Great Outdoors from Chicago. As alluded to in the previous paragraph, they are coming to vacation for a week at a place familiar to Chet and his wife Connie (Stephanie Faracy). They are eager to get away for an entire week, far from anything that ties them to their lives back home. Oblivious to this desire is Chet’s brother-in-law Roman Craig (Dan Aykroyd). He is bringing his entire family, uninvited, to stay with them for the duration of the week. If the word “uninvited” did not tip you off as to how Chet feels about Roman, then, well, just know that there is no love lost. Roman is evidently more financially successful than Chet, making this known whenever there is an opportunity. Nonetheless, because Connie’s sister is Roman’s wife, Katie (Annette Benning), Chet relents. Immediately, Chet and Roman clash, not only on the idea of what broadly constitutes a good vacation, but on what to do in order to enjoy oneself. For Chet, the beauty of nature is enough, whereas all Roman can see are wasted resources. Chet wants hamburgers and hotdogs, Roman insists on lobster. Chet looks forward to a relaxing cruise on the lake in a pontoon boat, Roman buys a supercharged speedboat to pull water skiers. Still, there are subtle indications that Roman is envious of Chet. In the wake of the traumatizing aforementioned bear tale, Roman marvels at the quiet ease with which Chet settles down his children later that night. Not only does Roman not have these same skills, but his twin daughters Cara (Hilary Gordon) and Mara (Rebecca Gordon) are creepy. This is how everyone feels, anyway. After a water-skiing incident, which sees Chet inadvertently dragged around the lake and almost dying, he is ready to leave straightaway. Connie convinces him to give it one more chance. This is good news for the Ripley’s oldest son, Buckley “Buck” (Chris Young). Our side-story involves Buck’s attempts to woo a local girl named Cammie (Lucy Deakins), whom he, um . . . encounters one evening playing pool at an arcade. The less said about this first meeting, the better. She does his best to brush him off because she is in a bad mood, and I cannot say that I blame her. Nonetheless, he is persistent, going to her place of employment in town until he eventually wears her down into going on a date with him, despite her usually policy of steering clear of out-of-towners. What it means is less opportunity for father-and-son bonding time, which is a major reason Chet wanted this trip. Chet’s stomach, though, is what nearly finishes Buck’s newfound love. On a joint dinner outing to the hilariously named Paul Bunyan’s Cupboard (which I believe I went to as a child with my family in the Wisconsin Dells), Chet takes on their “Old 96’er,” a ninety-six-ounce steak. By eating the eating the whole thing, the rest of their party’s meal is free. Doing so becomes a spectacle, but it also makes Buck late for meeting Connie, which she takes as a sign that he is like all the rest and not committed to her. Back at home, tempers flare once more as Chet tries to light a fire and all Roman can do is criticize the manner Chet is going about it. It is all Chet can take, and it leads to Roman packing up his family and heading out the door. Before he does, though, Roman tells Chet a story of his wedding day to Katie, and how Roman overhead Chet talking about how he thinks his new brother-in-law is a loser. On the heels of a heartfelt apology, Roman explains that part of the reason he came up to be with them at this time is that he had hoped to get an investment in a sure-fire money-making scheme, to which Chet also assents. Yet, driving away, Roman begins to feel guilty. Turning around, he returns to admit that it has all been a sham. The truth is that he lost his job as a stockbroker, something he also kept hidden from Katie. More reconciliation occurs until everyone realizes that Cara and Mara are missing. Chet and Roman team up to go out into the storm to find them. When the dads do, it is Roman’s turn to shine as a father. Unfortunately, Chet is followed home by Jody, which is how it gets its rear-end shot off. The dust settles on the proceeding morning, with Buck making amends with Cammie, and Roman suggesting that his family is coming to live with the Ripleys.
I do not know what to say from the Catholic perspective about the silliness that is The Great Outdoors. There is a brief moment at the beginning when the Chet leads his family in praying to “Our Lady of Victory,” to which they all respond with the requisite “Pray for us!” For the record, while there have been many officially sanctioned Marian appearances over the centuries, and countless unofficial ones, there is no “Our Lady of Victory.” The Catholic Church does have a patron saint of sports, if that is what the movie is trying to convey. That is St. Sebastian, by the way. If you ever see a statue in a church of a guy with a bunch of arrows sticking out of him, that is St. Sebastian. Incidentally, he is also the patron saint of archers, which makes sense, I suppose. Otherwise, I am not sure what else this Catholic reviewer can say. It is your typical, 1980s family film fare, though the sequence with Buck and Cammie’s first meeting is a little disturbing, particularly in how it is shot. The Church is a bastion of family values, which are on display here, though they are not the sole purview of Catholicism.
I settled on The Great Outdoors because my broadcast partner at Down & Out Reviews seemed flabbergasted by the fact that I had not seen it. It is also significant that it is written by noted cinematic Chicago area enthusiast John Hughes. To me, he should stick to the films actually set in that area.