A tale of two heroes
Dutch (1991) Starring Ed O'Neill, Ethan Embry (billed as Ethan Randall), JoBeth Williams, and Christopher McDonald. Directed by Peter Faiman. Written and produced by John Hughes.
Critics called Dutch a rehash of John Hughes's earlier road film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; but when I watched Dutch, the movie that came to my mind was The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Like that classic western, Dutch features two males with understandable grievances against one another locked in a cycle of revenge. If that's your idea of fun (and I confess it is mine), this is a film for you.
Usually "family films" are only aimed at half the family: the adult half. This is a "family film" aimed at the male half. It's not a chick flick; it's a dude movie. And it really is for dudes of all ages.
Middle-aged critics (the people who almost inevitably failed to "get" every John Hughes movie), saw Dutch as yet another film about a wonderful adult saddled with an evil child who makes his life hell. And it is certainly possible to view the film that way.
Ed O'Neill plays the title character as a likeable, working class Joe who tries to get closer to his girlfriend by getting to know her pre-teen son (Ethan Randall). The boy, living at a boarding school, expects to spend Thanksgiving with his father, but his father breaks the date, leaving Randall to spend the holiday with his mother. The boy blames his mother for divorcing his beloved dad, so he isn't eager to spend his holidays with her. O'Neill agrees to drive Randall home, thinking he can bond with the boy and maybe even bring him around to liking his mother more.
What does O'Neill get for his trouble? The boy physically attacks him, insults him, and sneers at O'Neill's attempts to make friends. And that's just the beginning. So it's easy to relish O'Neill's victories when he ties up Randall or leaves him stranded miles from the nearest phone.
But here's what makes this movie special: it is also possible to sympathize with the boy.
Sure, Randall's character is introduced as hostile and snotty. His worst quality is carrying an attitude of superiority; but given the level of sophistication he displays throughout the film, that superiority is not entirely unearned.
When Randall is told his dad won't be seeing him this Thanksgiving, he refuses to believe it, clinging to his faith in his father. He plans to spend the holiday in his dorm in hopes that his dad will show up. Instead, he discovers a total stranger poking around in his dorm, violating his privacy. And Randall reacts appropriately, using physical force to repel the intruder.
After O'Neill identifies himself, Randall explains he has no desire to go to his mother's house. And O'Neill abducts him!
Adding insult to injury, this kidnapper acts on the belief that he can still win over the boy by simply making funny faces or buying Randall off with some firecrackers. Any self-respecting viewer who remembers his own childhood would have to cheer when Randall retaliates.
And retaliate he does.
While most fictional youths simply accept mistreatment from adults, this one fights back. He punches out O'Neill. He destroys O'Neill's car.
Given the number of children in America who are physically assaulted by their parents or other adults each year, it may be irresponsible for a film to portray such domestic violence as funny, or to present it as if it were even-handed between adults and children. But given the number of films and TV shows that urge us to laugh at adults hitting children, it is refreshing when a film invites us to laugh as well when youths hit adults.
Another refreshing twist in this film is the way it challenges ageist stereotypes by offering a youth who is sophisticated and an adult who seems to relish bathroom humor. Sure, other comedies have given us sophisticated children as a joke, urging us to giggle at the very idea of a smart child. But Randall's display of intelligence is not a punchline. This film acknowledges that a 12-year-old who knows correct grammar is not a hilarious concept, it's a common enough reality that viewers can identify with this boy's discomfort in being trapped with a man who thinks belching qualifies as a witticism.
I Got Yer "Role-Model" Right Here.
Another commendable aspect of Dutch: the titular hero rejects the ageist notion that adults must put on an act around children, must talk without swear words, must not acknowledge sex or anything else an ageist society puts off-limits to youth. O'Neill uses real words when talking to Randall, just like he would talking to an adult. And he buys Randall playing cards bearing girlie pictures. (For a child, it might feel a bit creepy to have an old dude sharing porn, but at least it shows O'Neill isn't buying into the ageist tradition of being a "good role-model.")
Ultimately, the two males bond the way males in real life often do: over feelings of attraction toward women. When Randall reveals he failed to stop a pick-pocket from grabbing O'Neill's wallet because Randall was distracted by a hot chick, O'Neill doesn't lecture the kid about having the wrong values — he high-fives him.
O'Neill does, in fact, want to be a good role-model; he just doesn't want to be the usual role-model displaying those qualities an ageist society demands in "good" children. Instead, O'Neill works to model the values that we honor in adults and should honor in children as well: independence, self-reliance, persistence, and pride. O'Neill says as much when he explains why he doesn't want to call for help no matter how desperate their situation gets.
And nicely enough, Hughes does not portray these values as ones the boy needs to learn. These are characteristics Randall already shares with his older companion. These are the shared attributes that inflame their tensions and then help them bond.
The Twist Ending
Usually a movie like this will end with the "evil" child finally straightening out once the adult hero gets tough with him. Hughes gives us that expected ending with a twist that eliminates the ageism: it's an adult who straightens out after O'Neill gets tough.
Is it realistic that a punch to the head and brief lecture would cause Randall's father (Christopher McDonald) to suddenly become a kind man? No, but it's not realistic with a child, either. If viewers roll their eyes at this, maybe they'll be quicker to roll their eyes at the ageist version as well. Meanwhile this ending offers escapist entertainment.
The real excitement comes, not from the punch, but from the speech. Like Frank Capra, Hughes knows how to give his hero a crowd-pleasing speech.
O'Neill confronts McDonald for being unfair to his ex-wife. Then he confronts McDonald for being unloving toward his son:
He doesn't deserve having his feelings hurt or his mind played with. Especially not by his dad. I like him a lot. I'm his friend. But see, I'm never gonna be his father. That's your job. You better learn to do it.
Quick, name another film where the hero dares to pass judgment on a parent, let alone demand the parent do a better job. Usually Hollywood treats parents like a dictator one fears to question. On the rare occasion that a character questions the quality of someone's parenting, that character is almost automatically a villain: the confused and cold-hearted bureaucrat from Child Protective Services or the meddling neighbor.
The director of Daredevil originally planned to have superhero Daredevil beat up an abusive father, then pull back and feel ashamed of himself for taking crime-fighting "too far." The director decided even this was too risky, however, and changed the abusive father to a gangster who draws Daredevil's wrath by beating up an adult.
An abused child sitting in a dark movie theater is told over and over that his abusers are above questioning.
Occasionally, a film portrays a parent as a goofball or someone who learns to be a better parent as the film progresses. But name another film that suggests it's okay for someone to pass judgment on bad parents or to intervene.
Hundreds of films have their heroes pass judgment on children, punishing children left and right for mistakes and shortcomings. But punishing a parent? The only other film I can think of where the hero punishes bad parenting is Matilda, and that was only filmed after Dutch led the way.
Once again, John Hughes gives youth and youth-advocates a reason to cheer.