I recall finding this movie quite enjoyable the first time I saw it years ago, but having picked it up at the library today and rewatched it tonight, it is both underrated for its humorous appeal and ultimate sadness. The primary reason behind both statements was the performance of John Candy.
Admittedly, I was a big fan of "SCTV" when I was in college, and there was a brilliance to the whole cast. But Candy had the rarest of abilities to be both outrageous and still maintain the veneer of believable humanity. Here he's nothing as over the top as Johnny LaRue or Dr. Tongue, and he's allowed more emotional depth than his big-screen credits as Del Griffith (Planes, Trains and Automobiles) and Uncle Buck. He's achingly human and vulnerable, while still funny and lovable. No other performance I ever saw him in makes the case that he could have been a comic-actor treasure better than his Danny Muldoon character in "Only the Lonely." This should have been the movie that made him a true top A-list star. There is heart in this movie performance that is undeniable, along with his gentle humor. He walks the emotional tightrope his character has to negotiate almost perfectly. And then pairing him with a number of other strong casting choices, none more so than an epic return to the screen from Maureen O'Hara as his caustic Irish mother, really gave this movie emotional power and range. Ally Sheedy shines, as well, in delivering the kind of nuanced performance that successfully completed the complex emotional triangle necessary for drawing you into believing in these characters and the conflicts they must overcome.
On a broader scale, there are a few points of criticism that could be offered. With "Only the Lonely" coming after the wildly successful "Home Alone," it could be said that some decisions made by the creative team of John Hughes and Chris Columbus drew too easily from the framework of clichés they had already established with audiences from their previous Chicago films. "Only the Lonely" could have been the Chicago cousin of "Moonstruck" with a bit more thought put into storyline development.
But perhaps it would have only gotten in the way. This is a movie where the actors shine -- no one more so than Candy -- and, as noted, was a joy to revisit, but also leaves me feeling sentimental. We can only wonder what other big screen work could have wowed us all if John had gotten just a few more cracks at creating the kind of character he showed us all he was capable of with this role. As it is, though, this is much more than a run-of-the-mill film that many reviewers have pegged it as 25 years down the line.
Revisiting this movie and missing John Candy