Chris Columbus followed up Home Alone with his very own version of a John Hughes joint – an adaptation of Delbert Mann’s 1955 film Marty, transplanted from the Bronx to the Chicago Loop. Like Marty, Only the Lonely is about a bachelor gifted with a late chance at romantic happiness, and while it was billed as a comic adaptation of Mann’s melancholy and occasionally harrowing film, that doesn’t quite do it justice. Certainly, there is more of a comic substrate here, but there are also more vertiginous shifts in tone than in the original, which is quite seamless in its naturalism and its scepticism of Hollywood contrivance. By contrast, Columbus moves quite rapidly from wacky physical comedy, to soulful romantic drama, to morbid memento mori, as if trying to figure out just how much is elegy and just how much is parody in this revision of mid-century Hollywood. Against all the odds, it really works, partly due to Columbus’ dexterity in adapting his own screenplay, and partly due to the trio of performances at its core. First and foremost, John Candy shines as retiring police officer Danny Muldoon, his best role after Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and the beginning of his truncated attempt to break out into more dramatic parts. Complementing him is Maureen O’Hara as his mother, Rose, in her first performance since 1971, as well as her last before her death fourteen years later, in 2015. Finally, Ally Sheedy plays Danny’s retiring love interest Theresa, cast against type here and channeling her Brat Pack angst into a more understated “modesty,” that sits well alongside O’Hara’s stately classicist presence.
Of course, the real protagonist of the film is Chicago itself and, more specifically, the Irish urban village that Columbus sketches out within the Inner Loop. If you’d never been to Chicago, you might assume that the city was an endless series of cosy Irish pubs sheltered under elevated train tracks, scored to soulful – and yet synthesised – pipe music, and barely removed from the old country. Even within the world set out by the film, it feels as if this landscape is in danger of collapsing into a simulation of itself, or becoming too continuous with the rest of the United States, with the result that Rose, in particular, has to resort to racism against Italians, Poles and Germans in order to maintain her sense of community, which causes no end of drama once Danny reveals that Theresa is not only Italian, but Sicilian. On the face of it, then, Only the Lonely seems to be far less relaxed about race than Marty, just as Columbus’ version of 90s Chicago seems to be far less syncretic than Mann’s version of 50s New York. Yet this vision of Irish-Italian conflict, and intra-immigrant racism, is itself something of a simulation, comforting in its datedness and almost playing as a tribute to the breadth and richness of America’s immigrant and expatriate communities. At a time when black-white divisions were the main source of conflict in American inner cities, Only the Lonely betrays an inchoate longing for those territorial divisions that had animated an earlier generation of Hollywood films, complementing the rise of period gangster exercises like Goodfellas in its reimagination of immigrant turf wars as a nostalgia effect.
Yet to reduce Only the Lonely to a nostalgia image would be to miss its more macabre elements, as well as its pervasive atmosphere of mortality and morbidity, which seems to destine this fantasy to death before it even begins, and often recalls the more manic and plastic side of mid-century Hollywood as well, with Arsenic and Old Lace feeling like a particular point of reference. Whereas Marty’s love interest was a schoolteacher, Theresa works at a funeral parlour, meaning that she can only go on a date with Danny if nobody dies. From the outset, romance is always bound up with death, while weddings and funerals are collapsed into the same cycle of life, with most of the characters urging Danny to marry simply to avoid having to die alone, or to attend funerals alone. As his relationship with Theresa blooms, it also draw out a more superstitious and macabre side to the Irish expatriate community, and to his mother as figurehead of that community, especially once Halloween approaches, which for all intents and purposes is presented as an Irish holiday. In fact, Danny only meets Theresa in the first place when a pair of local Irish bachelors brings a corpse into the local Irish bar the night before a wake for one last drink, just as it’s the death of one of these bachelors that brings Danny and Theresa together again in the final scenes.
Taken collectively, these morbid touches gradually suggest a certain finitude inherent in revisiting and simulating classical Hollywood for a postmodern era, with even the local priest telling Rose that “ I know you realise it’s the 90s, I’m just not sure you know it’s the 1990s.” In that sense, Theresa often plays as the personification of the project as a whole, not just because she is the most transformed character from Mann’s original, but because her profession in the morgue is just a stepping-stone (or so she hopes) to her wider aspiration to become a make-up artist on Broadway. Throughout the film, she practices on her corpses, generally styling them after famous classical Hollywood icons, keeping a television and a collection of video tapes in her work space to make sure she always has as many points of references as possible. When we first see her in situ, she is actually making up a corpse to look like Clark Gable, poring over a still from Gone with the Wind to help her get just the right amount of veracity, and imbuing her first meeting with Maureen O’Hara with a particularly primal and morbid energy. It’s a good visual metaphor for Columbus’ awareness of what is at stake in his own project, in which every attempt to dress up the present as the past ends up just reiterating the deadness of the past, as the film glimpses some inexorable limitation to the satisfactions of postmodern simulation even as it also imbues Danny and Theresa’s romance with a beautiful sense of belatedness in the process.
That’s the perfect ambience for John Candy, who worked brilliantly in these milder and more soulful kinds of roles, and often feels as if he is gently improvising, or playing himself, at many of the key moments in the film. As Columbus draws out one subliminal shift in expression after another, I found myself realising again what an incredibly expressive face Candy had, as well as the extent to which it tended to be eclipsed by his body, especially in his comic roles. His performance here is all the more memorable in that it never becomes too mild either – this isn’t a middlebrow attempt to disavow Candy’s body altogether – with Columbus introducing just enough physical comedy to create a fresh sense of revelation each time Candy’s face is given sufficient space to register it. After all, it’s the expansive liquidity of Candy’s face that made it so expressive in the first place, especially in this kind of toned-down role in which his face is permitted to act on behalf of his body, rather than merely being buried deep within his body. For that reason, and in the best possible way, Candy often feels as if he is playing a cameo part for the majority of the film, afforded a dignity, a latitude, and an incidental relish that was often shorn from his larger role, and must be indebted to what Columbus glimpsed from his uncredited cameo in Home Alone.
With Theresa personifying and mediating the film’s relationship to the past, it makes sense that Candy’s charisma should be most beautifully contoured alongside that of Maureen O’Hara, since it’s the relationship between Danny and Rose that constitutes the real romance of the film. In many ways, this reminded me of the rapport between Candy and Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, since Only the Lonely is just as perfectly poised in the way in which it offers Candy as a figure of fun only for his character to gradually insist upon his dignity and his right to happiness. For all that this might have been marketed as quite a silly, screwy, catty film, it’s clear that Columbus has striven to genuinely capture the pull between a parent and a partner, especially in the third act, when Rose’s influence returns right when Danny and Theresa should by any account have consummated their romance. In their own quite different ways, Danny and Rose are quite agonised to have to give each other up, and so the film ends, as it must, with Danny departing from the world he once knew as much as arriving at a romantic future, as a concatenation of planes, trains and automobiles sees Rose heading to Florida as he follows Theresa to New York to supports her Broadway dreams. In those last moments, this fantasy of Chicago, and of classical Hollywood, evaporates, and yet it is that evaporation that is the real fixation of Only the Lonely, even if it takes an entire beautiful and languorous film to finally get there.