Only the Lonely isn't the finest film of actor John Candy's career, but I can't think of one that makes better use of his deep sadness and longsuffering sweetness. He was often cast as outlandish, bombastic characters, but he had a soulful tenderness that set him apart from the other SCTV/SNL goofballs of his era. Here's a film that strips away the jokes and simply allows Candy to play an ordinary man. His direct, sincere performance is so affecting that you almost forget to notice that the film he's in is slipping into formula.
Candy is Danny Muldoon, a 38-year-old Chicago cop who lives with his overbearing, bigoted mother Rose (Maureen O'Hara, Big Jake). Danny doesn't have much of a social life, partially because he's shy and partially because he worries about leaving his mother's side for too long. Rose is perfectly satisfied with this arrangement, and actively discourages Danny from pursuing romance or personal independence. After all, if Danny has a love life, it'll prevent him from spending all of his free time tending to Rose's needs.
Eventually, Danny meets Theresa Luna (Ally Sheedy, The Breakfast Club), a soft-spoken mortician's daughter with her own bundle of social anxieties. The two quickly strike up a romance, and Danny's heart fills with optimism: maybe, just maybe, he's finally found the woman of his dreams. Alas, Rose is determined to do whatever it takes to persuade Danny to drop the whole thing... or failing that, to find some other way to wreck the relationship.
There are faint traces of D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers in the Danny/Rose relationship, along with not-so-faint traces of the Oscar-winning Marty. Candy's presence might lead you to think that Only the Lonely is a comedy (in fact, the film's tagline promise as much: a comedy for anyone who's ever had a mother!), but it quickly becomes apparent that writer/director Chris Columbus (working in a more grown-up mode than usual) wants us to consider this situation seriously. Rose treats Theresa badly not because she genuinely despises her, but because of what Theresa represents: a life without Danny at Rose's side. Rose uses her son's goodness against him, but she isn't explicitly evil so much as oblivious to her son's needs. It's a terrific showcase for O'Hara, making a return to the big screen after a 20-year hiatus (disappointingly, it remains her last theatrical feature to date). Remember those ever-exasperated Irish spitfires O'Hara used to play? Imagine one of those characters after several decades of disappointment and bitterness, and you have an idea of what Rose is like.
Candy's sweet, affable performance slowly transforms into something more desperate and painful, building to a scene in which Danny confronts Rose with all of the terrible things she's done over the course of her life. It's a superbly-acted scene that packs a real emotional wallop, and there are other late moments that achieve similar power: a deeply uncomfortable conversation between Rose, Danny and Theresa in a restaurant, and a heated argument between Danny and his brother Patrick (Kevin Dunn, Transformers) that features some of the rawest work of Candy's career. Danny will sacrifice many things for the sake of being, “a good boy,” but he can't quite bring himself to sacrifice a rare chance at finding love.
Disappointingly, the movie slips into conventional romantic drama mode as it heads to the finish line. The obligatory third-act breakup scene is trotted out, leading to the inevitable scene in which the male lead races to the airport (okay, it's actually a bus station) to declare his love. While Columbus' writing is above-average, his direction is disappointingly static – the movie often looks like a made-for-TV affair, complete with opening credits that feel ripped from an early '90s sitcom. The handful of goofy fantasy scenes – in which Danny guiltily imagines horrible things happening to Rose as a result of his selfishness – generally feel like unnecessary attempts to lighten the mood amidst some heavy moments. These things keep the movie from greatness (it's certainly no Marty, one of the loveliest Best Picture winners of all time), but every so often, Only the Lonely captures something real, complex and heartbreaking.
Only the Lonely
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Year: 1991