Movie Review: Curly Sue (1991)
“Look out everybody! The world’s smallest con artist is in town.”
Curly Sue (1991)
Director: John Hughes
Cast: Jim Belushi, Kelly Lynch, Alisan Porter
Synopsis: A hard-nosed female divorce lawyer becomes involved with a homeless waif and her con man guardian.
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While John Hughes’ shamelessly manipulative Curly Sue borrows its basic concept from Paper Moon (1973), it’s also a brazen attempt on the part of Hughes to recreate his unexpected success with the previous year’s Home Alone. This time, though, the cute tyke at the centre of the story isn’t under threat from inept burglars, but from heartless social workers who want to part her from her surrogate father, a homeless con-man who might well have been an accomplice of Harry and Marv had he not been so improbably principled. This skewed perceptive, in which society’s guardians are portrayed as unfeeling monsters and a guy angling to dishonestly part you from your cash is the hero, are symptomatic of the fantasy world in which the story of Curly Sue takes place.
The con man’s name is Bill Dancer (Jim Belushi), and the little girl is Curly Sue (Alisan Porter – Meet Dave). They scratch out a living on the streets of Chicago, earning enough to feed themselves by whacking the rear of a reversing car with a plank of wood to fool the driver into believing they’ve run into Dancer, who lies prone on the ground behind the car while Curly Sue sheds crocodile tears. Their latest victim is hard-nosed divorce lawyer Grey Ellison (Kelly Lynch – Desperate Hours), who irritates her arrogant boyfriend (John Getz – The Perfect Guy) by delaying their dinner engagement to take Dance and Curly Sue to a diner. When Grey genuinely runs Dancer over the following day, she takes him and Curly Sue to her plush apartment, and it’s not long before the little girl is worming her way into the lawyer’s heart.
It’s as predictable as it is unrealistic, and Curly Sue shares the same tenuous link to the real world that can be found in movies of the 1930s and ‘40s, when a movie’s primary purpose was to distract its audience from the harsh rigours of depression and war. Dancer might be a scam artist, but he’s a good guy who’s fallen on hard times, and only cons people to stay alive. His and Curly Sue’s faces might be a little grubby, but that’s as close as the movie comes to acknowledging the reality of their situation, and Curly Sue possesses the healthy plump cheeks of a tot who eats popcorn on the sofa while watching TV. The film’s depiction of Grey Ellison is equally old-fashioned, suggesting that a relationship and children are incompatible with the successful career from which she clearly needs to be rescued.
Shirley Temple is the obvious prototype for Curly Sue, but it’s safe to say that Porter is no Shirley Temple. In fact, she makes an oddly unappealing heroine whose self-conscious attempts at cuteness mostly fall flat, and who fails to create any kind of chemistry with Belushi. Hughes makes little effort to disguise his cynical attempt to revive the kind of sentimental fluff that was so prevalent in Hollywood’s vintage years, but fails to comprehend that cuteness wasn’t the sole component in the success of those movies. With Curly Sue, he doesn’t try to pull at your heartstrings so much as stretch them to breaking point, and those with a low tolerance for such artifice will quickly find themselves reaching for the sick bag.
(Reviewed 31st October 2016)