John Hughes (Screenwriting) Retrospective: Dog days
The fatigue that had settled on John Hughes at the turn of the 1990s oozed into its cruelest form with Beethoven, a family comedy about a wacky & destructive St. Bernard that is totally without any merit whatsoever. It is not, in the main, a film of tremendous importance in cinema generally, nor in Hughes's own career - it was the first film that he wrote alongside another author since 1983's Nate and Hayes, and the first film he wrote without also producing or directing since... 1983's Nate and Hayes. Or, in both cases, 1985's European Vacation if we discount Hughes's later contention that he didn't actually do anything to earn his screenwriting credit on that film, but what is important is not which film was the last for which Hughes had so little skin in the game, but that Beethoven represents the moment at which John Hughes, the superproducer behind the massive 1990 holiday hit Home Alone gave right the fuck up, though at least he wrote the film under a nom de plume, calling himself "Edmond Dantès", because apparently he was actually more ashamed of this film than he was of Dutch.
I do not think that it's possible for Beethoven to be a direct response to the critical and commercial drubbing of Hughes Entertainment's four movies in 1991; with an April, 1992 release date, the screenplay must have been completed at least a full year prior to that. What it is, I suspect, is the symptom of the same malaise that led to his most recent projects being so joyless to watch - he had run out of things to say, and he needed a break. Perhaps most importantly for our present needs, he'd learned with Home Alone that he could make ungodly amounts of money by pandering to a child audience, and he took that lesson all the way to the bank. Well, not "the bank" exactly, because he'd never again be associated with a movie that made remotely that much money, but it's sort of depressing to take a gander at his films' box office history and observe that the crudely mercenary pictures he made in the 1990s were, in general, bigger hits than the personal stories he told in the 1980s.
So: Beethoven, as co-written with Amy Holden Jones (whose most notable film to that point was the sub-Hughesian Mystic Pizza) is the story of a little St. Bernard puppy who nobody wants to buy at the pet store, and then one day a pair of dog thieves steal him, but because they are total idiots that are in no way obvious, lazy rip-offs of the Wet Bandits from Home Alone, they manage to lose him, and he ends up sneaking into the home of the Newtons: stay-at-home mom Alice (Bonnie Hunt), barely-teen daughter Ryce (Nicholle Tom), and kids Ted (Christopher Castile) and Emily (Sarah Rose Karr). And, most importantly, father George (Charles Grodin), the owner of a small air freshener company who hates, hates, HATES dogs, as well as, seemingly, family, happiness, and breathing. Struck by a rare moment of wanting those around him to experience any kind of pleasure, George agrees, reluctantly, to let the dog stay; the dog is given the name "Beethoven" when he starts howling along (in key!) to the opening measures of the composer's Symphony No. 5, but really because Hughes or Jones or somebody noticed that there is a song called "Roll Over Beethoven", and that "roll over!" is something you say to dogs, so if there is a dog named Beethoven, then you could put "Roll Over Beethoven" in your movie and it would be funny, and sure enough, that is exactly what happens next, in a "watch the dog grow up while the children do not" montage.
In the rest of its thankfully brief 85 minutes, Beethoven ends up possessing so little narrative that it takes two entirely distinct dramatic conflicts just to haul it, wheezing, over the feature-length line. George, we learn, is about to seal the deal with a pair of wildly venal yuppie venture capitalists, Brad (Young David Duchovny) and Brie (Freakishly Young Patricia Heaton), who we know are awful because they both yammer about their Beemers, because owning a BMW and calling it a "Beemer" was something that codified "shallow yuppie" in the early 1990s, and it didn't seem at the time that it would become so ponderously dated a character detail as has, in fact, turned out to be the case, but that's not the screenwriters' fault. Brad and Brie, however, are secretly just planning to take over George's company and leave him penniless. Luckily, Beethoven overhears their plot - it is nowhere else implied in the film that he is intelligent, or understands English - and ruins the contract-signing luncheon George and Alice had put together. Why a pair of venture capitalists would plot with such self-amused evil to take over a small air freshener operation is not remotely clear, and it will never be clarified, because Brad and Brie never come back and are never referred to again.
Having thus exhausted their first story, Hughes and Jones switch back to those dog thieves, lisping idiot Harvey (Impossibly, Horrifyingly Young Oliver Platt) and canny wiseguy Vernon (Basically The Same Age Stanley Tucci), and their boss, Dr. Varnick (Dean Jones, who was in some of the live-action Disney animal comedies of the '60s and '70s that Beethoven can't match, even though they weren't very good to start with), an evil vet who steals animals and conducts weapons research on them for kingly prices. Weapons research. He needs a big St. Bernard because somebody walks into his office and offers to pay him to find out what happens when you shoot a huge dog with an exploding round. It is insane, but not as insane as somebody's idea that "exploding bullets" and "frothy kids' movie about how Grumpy Dad learns to not be such an old poop and love the family dog" were the great peanut butter and chocolate combination that the world was waiting for. Also, it doesn't seem to matter that Harvey and Vernon were also the people who tried to steal Beethoven back when he was a puppy, but after the whole Brad & Brie debacle, I'm not going to let a little thing like a dropped plotline bother me.
A whole film on the theme "large dog causes comic problems" might seem tiresome, and hey! it is. Look closely, and you can see the themes of Hughes's career wedged in there: the rough gap between parents and children, sexual awakening - in the film's most unnecessary moment of many, Ryce ogles a bunch of shirtless 13-year-old boys, which is mostly a problem because we get a POV shot at that same exact moment and so it is that for a few seconds, Beethoven becomes pedophilic erotica - upper-middle class emotional emptiness, killer veterinarians. But you'd also have to be deranged to look that closely. This is boilerplate, written on autopilot, and directed by Brian Levant with all the joy-sucking mediocrity that he brings to every one of his wrathfully bland family-friendly slapstick comedies (he directed both of the live-action theatrical Flintstones features) - there are multiple instances of a close-up on Beethoven's face, played by an animatronic rig that makes big, goggle-eyed "WHUH?" expressions, and if you can see that without curling up and dying, you are stronger than I.
It's a horrible and sad place to end our John Hughes retrospective, and yet the only place I could; for this was the film with which John Hughes, poet of teen angst, Chicago-phile, and gooey humanist, died. The rest of his career in the 1990s lurched from one basically unwatchable kiddie flick with way too much violence to the next (Varnick is injected with animal poison from 20 syringes in Beethoven, and does not die only because that would entail too much dignity for him and us), remaking movies for Disney, humping the Home Alone franchise until it was dry, and making Baby's Day Out, which should be all we need to know. It got bad enough that by the time he wrote the story for the 2002 Maid in Manhattan, it was practically a return to form.
You do it for the money, though, and that sort of thing happens. And after 1990, John Hughes was not a very happy man any more; John Candy's 1994 death took a lot out of him, and he basically retired, cranking out these trashy kiddie flicks just to keep himself solvent. Let us not follow him there; let us cling to the image of Hughes as a warm, friendly man, a man who loved his characters and had a profound sense of things always working out. It might be wrong to thus deny reality, but I think that tweaking reality to make it happier was one of the things Hughes did best, and I hope he would have approved.