80’s Library: The Great Outdoors

The Great Outdoors

Waking up to frigid temperatures of minus 15-degrees has made me long for summer.  As I drive to work in darkness with gloves on my hands and a scarf around my neck, I think about warm breezes, sunshine and sandals.  I think about summertime and the great outdoors.  The Great Outdoors!  The classic 80`s movie starring John Candy and Dan Aykroyd.  It`s funny how one train of thought leads to another.  I had to write about a film that I still love to watch.  Even after multiple viewings, watching The Great Outdoors makes me laugh every time.

John Hughes’ screenplay keeps the film`s plot pretty simple.    John Candy plays Chet Ripley, a well-intentioned good guy and middleclass patriarch who brings his family to the same lake resort he visited as a child and where he and his wife honeymooned.  His plan is to treat his family to old-fashioned fun in the great outdoors.  Dan Aykroyd plays Roman Craig, a slick-talking, narcissistic yuppie cousin who shows up uninvited with his family and rudely settles in to the Ripley cabin.

The cabin and the lake resort serve as the backdrop for the hilarity that ensues: Chet and Roman are at odds with each other and with the animals in the great outdoors.   There are raccoons that continually knock over and forage through their garbage cans, thwarting every attempt by Chet to keep them out.  The raccoons, whose conversations are subtitled – “Rocks on top of the garbage cans. That never works. We’ll just knock the cans over.” – are just as funny as the people.

This family seems to have a bit of bad luck and no knack for dealing with nature’s creatures.  A bat gets into the cabin and everybody runs out screaming.  Before Chet and Roman go back in to shoo it out, they create makeshift bodysuits out of fishing nets, oven mitts, straw wastebaskets and large parkas for protection.  In another scene, a large bear chases Chet through the woods and eventually traps him underneath the cabin door.  Implausibly, yet hilariously, the bear stomps up and down on the door, squashing Chet over and over again.  In the real world, if a poor sap got pummeled like that by a bear, he would probably be seriously hurt, but Chet walks away unscathed.

In one of my favourite scenes in the film, the entire family goes out to dinner at a local restaurant called Paul Bunyon’s Cupboard.  On the menu is “The Old 96-er,” a 96-ounce prime-aged beef steak.  If anyone orders the old 96-er and finishes it, the entire party eats for free. Chet decides to try it.  Roman asks the waitress if anyone has ever eaten one.  “Not in my lifetime,” she says.  But Chet finishes the entire thing, gristle and all, because the cook won’t honour the “everybody eats free” promotion unless every ounce of the Old 96-er is eaten, and Roman isn’t about to miss out on a free dinner.

What makes the film so funny and enjoyable to me are John Candy’s reactions to the situations he finds himself in.  Whether he’s sparring with his cousin, being chased through the woods by a giant bear or sweating profusely while trying to eat a massive steak, John Candy is endearing, authentic and genuinely funny.  The self-deprecating humour and emotional warmth he brought to every character is alive in Chet, and it is fun to experience the great outdoors with him.