For people of my generation, John Hughes’s oeuvre—as writer, director, and/or producer—is widely regarded as classic fare. Superior films like The Breakfast Club and Planes, Trains and Automobiles stand side by side with charming but iffy fare like Uncle Buck and Dutch as comforting, thoughtful entertainment that has withstood the test of time (despite heaping dollops of ’80s cheese permeating each film). How did the great romantic comedy Only the Lonely fall through the cracks and drift into obscurity?
John Candy stars as Danny Muldoon, a mild-mannered Chicago cop plagued with guilt and fear about leaving his mother, Rose (Maureen O’Hara), alone. Rose, herself, is petrified of abandonment, which causes her to lash out unpleasantly whenever she feels threatened. In a meaner actress’s hands, Rose’s browbeating and casual racism would come across as shrill and unnecessary. O’Hara plays Rose as a woman both crippled by fear and ignorant of the pain she causes others. After all, as Rose often says, she’s just telling it like it is.
As expected, things get tough when Danny meets Theresa Luna (Ally Sheedy), an introverted undertaker who wants to transpose her gift for making up the dead to making up Broadway stars. Danny and Theresa start an awkward, tentative relationship that’s as sweet as it is sad. The romance is hard enough without Rose, but she casts a long shadow over Danny. He cancels dates to keep from leaving her alone, interrupts Theresa in mid-sentence to call her, and is frequently overcome with tonally jarring fantasy sequences involving her dying in disturbingly over-the-top ways.
Ultimately, Danny wants to break free of his mother and his life, but he’s spent 38 years under her thumb. Even his love for Theresa can’t easily overcome that much accumulated guilt and worry. As expected, he has to make difficult choices. As he does, the film heads in a surprisingly melancholy direction, which I suppose could explain why it hasn’t endured as a romantic-comedy staple. Even with its eventual happy ending, it gets kind of grim, but it’s grim in believable ways. Danny’s problems with Theresa and Rose are increasingly complicated, and writer/director Chris Columbus refuses to provide easy solutions. The happy ending feels like a well-earned sigh of relief rather than a predictable crossing of the most obvious possible finish line.
I don’t want to get too defensive of Columbus, who has been unjustly maligned for numerous reasons (too many of them having to do with his perfectly fine work on the first two Harry Potter movies), but Only the Lonely proves—just like Hughes did with Planes, Trains and Automobiles—that he’s just as capable of writing and directing challenging films for adults as he is crowd-pleasing but generally thoughtful kids’ movies.
But here’s the question I always need to answer when I review romantic comedies: Is it funny? If you like John Candy’s schtick, this won’t disappoint. It cultivates his usual “funny yet vulnerable” movie persona into a character crippled by neuroses, who uses his quick wit and even his weight as defensive measures to keep people at a distance. O’Hara also manages to mine a surprising number of big laughs from such an unpleasant character. In addition to being funny, it helps sell the idea that she’s not a bad person—just horribly misguided and woefully ignorant—which makes it easier to understand Danny’s dilemma.
Only the Lonely may not be for everyone, but it has all the elements I look for in a romantic comedy: Funny, colorful characters; a charming cast; and a story that takes romantic relationships seriously and isn’t afraid to portray them as difficult but rewarding. You’re better off with this than The Proposal.