This is a mood movie. Not the movie’s mood. Your mood while you’re watching it. If you’ve got the itch for a syrupy, sentimental, blatantly manipulative film experience, then “Curly Sue” is just your ticket. And who isn’t ready for something gushy once in a while? As much as I resisted through the whole first ninety minutes of this picture, I felt a minor throb in my heart at the end and a smile crossed my face. It’s exactly the payoff I expected, yet it affected me anyway.
Enough to make me want to watch the film again? Not on your life. “Curly Sue,” filmmaker John Hughes’s 1991 take on Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon” fairy tale, is much too maudlin and predictable for that. Once is enough, thank you. But taken in the right spirit, that once may be just what you need.
The movie’s got all the ingredients of an old-fashioned, emotional romp: a darling, sweet-faced, nine-year-old girl (Alisan Porter) with a mop of curly hair for which she was not named (she got her nickname from one of the Three Stooges); a happy-go-lucky, single father-figure, Bill Dancer (Jim Belushi), who loves her more than life itself (I kept picturing Bill Murray here); a coolly detached female lawyer, Grey Ellison (Kelly Lynch), whose icy exterior belies a tender heart; and a villainous boyfriend, Walker McCormick (John Getz), who is easy to hiss from the opening bell.
Unfortunately, these stereotypes don’t hold up well under much scrutiny, and the first half hour of the story is slow enough to force the viewer to do a lot of scrutinizing. It seems to take forever for us to get acquainted with the odd couple of Belushi and Porter as a pair of homeless scam artists traveling from city to city conning people out of food and shelter. When you think about it, it’s pretty shameless, really. He’s shown later in the film to be an accomplished piano player, but he reluctantly takes sporadic work as a common laborer. The child has had no education and cannot read or write. Belushi is seen in the beginning asking Porter to hit him across the head with a stick and then literally throwing himself against Lynch’s car, pretending to be hurt in order to gain her pity and maybe a free meal or two. It’s hard to sympathize with that kind of parenting.
So, what does Lynch’s character do? She falls for the little girl instantly, of course, even though she has made it clear in the opening scene that she is hard as nails and has no room in her life for anybody, which presumably is why she’s been going out with the same guy for four years and never settled down with him. Anyway, after a second encounter with Belushi and Porter, she takes them home with her (what are the odds?), and the rest of the story proceeds exactly as formula demands despite the absurdity of the situation. Conflicts with the jealous boyfriend, conflicts with the authorities over custody of the child, conflicts with interrelationships, conflicts with being a lawyer or being a laborer or whatever.
I always like seeing Fred Thompson in a picture, though. He’s the guy who looked so much like a politician that he not only played them in the movies, he became one in 1994, getting elected Senator from Tennessee. Here, he plays Lynch’s senior partner, not much of a role but a convincing one as he acts as a firm but benign paternal influence on Lynch.
Look for other typical John Hughes touches, like the snobby head waiter and the weepy ending. If anything, “Curly Sue” reminds us how inconsistent Hughes can be. As a writer, director, and/or producer, he’s given us such outstanding films as “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “Trains, Planes, and Automobiles”; such mediocre but popular fare as “Sixteen Candles,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Dennis the Menace,” and “Home Alone 1-3”; and such outright time wasters as “Baby’s Day Out,” “Flubber,” and “Dutch.” Put it this way: “Curly Sue” is not among the man’s outstanding films. I suppose it’s intended as a romantic comedy, but there’s precious little romance in it and even less comedy. Quasi-romantic, soap-opera, sorta-comedy might better describe it.
The picture is presented in an anamorphic widescreen measuring approximately 1.74:1 in ratio across a normal television, and the image acquits itself quite nicely. Colors are bright and realistic; dark areas reveal adequate detail; color bleed-through is minimal; and grain or other digital artifacts are generally absent. No complaints here; it’s a thoroughly acceptable modern video transfer.
The movie was made just prior to the general adoption of discrete Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction, and apparently Warner Brothers didn’t think the film was important enough to remix the original Dolby Surround into five-point-one channels. So we get plain old stereo in front, with a synthesized mono signal in the rear. Actually, you won’t even be aware of the rear signal until the film’s characters are in a movie theater and the audience noise around them suddenly sparks the surround speakers to life. Some small musical ambiance reinforcement is also present in the rear. Otherwise, the front channels reproduce a good, clear, if somewhat limited frequency response. There’s probably no reason for anything else.
The main attraction among the extras is an audio commentary with star Alisan Porter, now quite grown up and ready to talk about her biggest and last movie role. She also has a brief, two-minute introduction to the movie you can listen to. Then there are some cast and crew filmographies, twenty-six scene selections, and a widescreen theatrical trailer. Spoken languages and subtitles are provided in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
This film is so vacuous it’s in danger of suffocating itself and everyone near it. Yet there’s no denying it has a certain mindless charm that, given the right circumstances, could just win over the most dedicated grouch. As I say, it eventually got to me, if ever so briefly, but I guess I’m an old softy.
While it is not one of Mr. Hughes’s best efforts, “Curly Sue” is not a total loss, either. Still and all, I think most viewers can figure out what they’re getting into just by looking at the little girl’s name and appearance. Any similarity between Curly Sue and Shirley Temple is practically intentional.