Danny Muldoon (John Candy) is a cop in Chicago whose ambitions have never been big; he still lives with his widowed mother (Maureen O'Hara) aged thirty-eight, has had the same post as a wagon driver for the police force for over a decade, and has no plans for anything more. But there’s a small voice in the back of his mind that tells him he really should be aiming higher, he shouldn't be eating all that junk food, he shouldn't be under the thumb of his elderly parent at this stage in his life, and he really should have found romance by this time and not a string of occasional dates nothing ever develops from. However, truth be told he cannot face leaving his mother alone, he would feel too guilty, and besides she has seen off any potential partners…
Marty was a sensation when it was broadcast (live!) on American television in the nineteen-fifties, and a film version was an obvious option, with Ernest Borgnine taking the title role in place of Rod Steiger. They both did very well out of their respective productions, Borgnine famously taking the Oscar for Best Lead Actor that year, so when it came to this unofficial remake about forty years later there must have been high hopes, with John Candy seeking to prove his acting credentials in a more serious part than audiences were used to seeing him in, something he had been hankering after in his career but all too rarely had the chance to demonstrate he was capable of. Alas, Only the Lonely fizzled at the box office.
That in spite of producer John Hughes and writer-director Chris Columbus reuniting after their global megahit Home Alone from the previous year – they even threw in a little Christmassy flavour for the final scenes, though this wasn't season-specific as a rule. Their casting coup was not so much Candy, but O'Hara, as she hadn't appeared in a theatrical feature for twenty years since showing up in her great friend John Wayne's Big Jake in 1971, and they felt this return to the screen would drum up sufficient publicity, but it turned out perhaps she had been away too long as she wasn't the draw she used to be outside of the movie nostalgists who were not going to queue to watch her in this, presumably preferring to see her older works.
If more people had given this a chance they would have found a likeably modest romantic drama with comedy asides as Danny happens upon mortician’s beautician Theresa Luna, played by a dowdy Ally Sheedy in terminally shy mode, a woman who more lives up to the title borrowed from the Roy Orbison song than Danny does, as he has plenty of folks around him. It looked more like they had secured the rights to the song and bolted its title onto the script rather than made it apply to the characters, another reason this failed to click with audiences when the song was so celebrated it was overpowering the alternative intentions of the actual narrative. But Candy and Sheedy made for a sweet couple, and one who you wished to see get over their hang-ups and outside interference and get together.
Although this was billed as a comedy, there weren't many huge laughs, especially when we weren't certain exactly how funny we were meant to find the mother's bigoted and overbearing act. By the end we are clear it's a defensive shield against the world that can be tough on an ageing widow, but it's a long time before we can see her frosty exterior thaw, not that there was anything wrong with O'Hara's reading of the role, indeed she injected some life into what could have been rather twee and sentimental. It was those things to a degree, but by taking the Marty story further to the point where wedding bells are heard Columbus opened up what had been a purposefully restricted drama about people who were giving up hope without a fight and made it more of a movie movie romance. Not a good idea was the visions Danny had of his mother meeting with mishaps, his fears of what would happen to her should he leave, which as in Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours wound up too emphatic to be funny, but otherwise Only the Lonely was a small love story with a big heart. Music by Maurice Jarre.