In 1991, director Chris Columbus had just come off the high of the commercial success of Home Alone the year before. His follow-up, Only the Lonely, was something of a departure, yet still in keeping with the residual “80s-ness” of a John Hughes production–not to mention a John Hughes cast. The starring roles of Danny Muldoon and Theresa Luna went to Hughes regulars John Candy (Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Uncle Buck) and Ally Sheedy (The Breakfast Club)–plus Macaulay Culkin even gets a cameo as Billy, the son of Danny’s brother, Patrick (Kevin Dunn).
Centering on an overbearing mother standing in the way of her son’s love life, a seemingly antiquated plotline at the time, Columbus’ script opens with Danny, a jovial cop known throughout the neighborhood, going about his morning routine (which consists of buying his mother her daily newspaper and lotto ticket) as he makes his way home to his matriarch, Rose (Maureen O’Hara, your quintessential hard-as-nails Irishwoman). Upon sitting down next to her at the table, a subtle contention immediately begins when Rose remarks on Danny’s absurd attempt at being healthy by eating yogurt instead of his usual go-to, a Danish. After she’s done making jibes at him for it, he further disappoints her by letting her know he’s going to a baseball game with his police partner, Sal (Jim Belushi)–forgetting it’s a Wednesday, the night he always accompanies her to bingo. After giving him a bit of her signature guilt for it, she tells him it’s fine, she’ll go by herself. Suddenly, in what will be a running motif throughout the film, Danny has a horrible premonition of his mother getting hit by the scaffolding around the church where the bingo game is and then falling into a hole as she whispers, “Oh Danny, I hope you enjoyed your baseball game.” Racked with unshakable remorse, Danny agrees to cancel his plans. It is the first case in point of Danny’s self-sacrificing nature costing him his own personal happiness.
Now on his fifteenth year as a haul-away cop–the guy who picks up criminals and bodies of criminals to take them to an incarceration point or morgue–Danny is repeatedly cajoled by his brother to let him talk to the superintendent about transferring Danny to Florida so he can take their mother to a nicer, warmer climate as opposed to subjecting her to the dangerous weather conditions of Chicago. Danny, seeing straight through Patrick’s true intent of wanting to stop having to feel contrite for never visiting his mother when she lives so close, reminds him that he doesn’t want to retire. Patrick drops the subject for the time being, especially after making a false offer to take Rose off Danny’s hands for awhile.
The next evening at their usual bar, O’Neill’s, Danny has a brief encounter with Theresa Luna, the daughter of local funeral parlor owner Johnny Luna (Joe Greco), who enters the bar with her father, irate over the snatching of a corpse that used to go by the name of Tommy Bones. When Johnny threatens to call the police on the two Irishman who stole their dead friend to grab a final drink at the bar, Rose nudges Danny to get involved. After flashing his badge at the offending parties, they agree to give the body back to Johnny. As Theresa stands awkwardly in the background, Danny smiles at her, intrigued. After they’ve all departed, Danny asks their fellow bar patrons, Doyle (Milo O’Shea) and Spats (Bert Remsen), if Theresa is single. When Spats tells her she’s single because most men are “turned off” by a woman who paints dead faces, Rose grows suspicious of his motives in inquiring about her, and insists he can do better than “some ghoul from a funeral parlor.” Nonetheless, Danny can’t resist the temptation to go and ask her out. After a bit of banter, mostly on Danny’s part, Theresa agrees and then silently mumbles to herself not to screw this one up, indicating there is more than meets the eye to her standoffishness.
On their date, Danny does the majority of the talking, feeling nervous and as though Theresa is uninterested. After walking her back to the funeral home, Theresa calls out to him and explains that she did have a good time, it’s just that she has “this…thing. This introverted kind of thing.” When Danny says that just means she’s shy, she counters, “No, it’s worse than shy,” inferring a certain kind of social anxiety disorder that perhaps the politics of the early 90s couldn’t say outright. In any case, the comfortable feeling she has with him makes her want to see him again.
In spite of Danny’s growing affection for Theresa, he still has false premonitions of Rose in danger every time he leaves the house to go on a date. Matters intensify when, in order to finally consummate his relationship with Theresa, he has to send his mother to Patrick’s so that he can have the house to himself, promising Rose that he just wants to have a quiet dinner alone with her, nothing more. Apart from the absurdity of this arrangement–a grown man expected to kowtow to his mother’s delicate state regarding opposite sex interaction–it’s also a huge boner kill the next morning when Rose returns early and Danny hides Theresa as though she possesses the secret shame of a prostitute.
Eventually, things grow serious enough for Danny to formally introduce Theresa to his mother at what will turn out to be a catastrophic dinner at an overpriced restaurant. Before Theresa reaches the table, Rose remarks on the ill-fitting nature of Theresa’s dress at the top. When she sits down, Rose lies, “That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing.” Danny chimes in, “Isn’t it?” Theresa graciously responds, “Oh thank you.” Rose then goes in for the kill by adding, “Even though it is a little big on top.” Danny defends, “Ma.” Rose throws him under the bus by insisting, “Well it is. You said so yourself.” All Danny can do is once again say, “Ma.” Theresa tries to diffuse the situation by stating, “No, that’s a…problem I have. I’m not really that endowed on top.” Danny, ineloquent as ever, repeats, “No, no, no, no.” Rose continues her scrutiny by concluding, “You’re built like a thirteen-year-old boy.”
The tensions of the dinner continue to mount when Theresa tells the waiter, “I’ll have a vodka double on the rocks.” Rose questions, “A vodka drinker?” Danny mildly defends Theresa by reminding Rose, “Well Ma, Theresa’s probably a little nervous. You know, being here with us and all. You know, you can understand that.” Rose glosses over the statement by noting, “It’s the first signs of alcoholism.” Danny rolls his eyes, “What?” Rose cites her source, “I read it in Reader’s Digest.” Theresa finally gets a chance to say, “Rose I can assure you I’m not an alcoholic.” Rose balks, “Oh denial, that’s another symptom. The article said that one shot of vodka was equal to all of the calories in a ham sandwich.” Theresa gains the courage to snarkily say, “Good. Maybe I’ll gain some weight and grow breasts for you.”
Rose is momentarily thrown off guard, but persists in her offensive line of questioning by taking it out on her (to Rose) unwanted heritage. “Now Theresa, Danny tells me that you’re Sicilian.” Theresa semi-confirms, “Yes. Part.” “Part?” “My father is Sicilian. My mother was Polish.” Rose bristles, “Polish?” “Yes.” Rose double checks with Danny by asking, “Polish?” Danny obsequiously responds, “I meant to tell you.” Thinking of another way to go for Theresa’s jugular, Rose rehashes, “I had a Polack friend once. She was incredibly stupid. Julie Kapowski. She was the stupidest woman that I ever knew. She believed that black cows squirted chocolate milk.” As Rose sits there cackling at her so-called joke, Theresa at last can’t stand it any longer and curtly states, “I think it’s better if you and Danny have dinner alone. Why don’t you have my grilled chicken? Cut it up in small pieces and devour it. You seem to be very good at that.”
The pressure building up to this point is largely Danny’s fault, as he seems incapable of transcending past his obedient child self to stand up for the woman he supposedly loves. His mother is a crippling, stunting entity doomed to arrest his development and ability to see beyond the confines of the nuclear family. When Danny goes after her in the street outside the restaurant, Theresa calls him out. “You just sat there. You didn’t do anything to stop her.” Danny defends, “Theresa, she’s my mother.” “So that gives her the right to rip me apart?” Danny shrugs, “What was I supposed to do?” Theresa says simply, “Fight for me.” It is this moment that pinpoints how and why so many relationships still go awry. The over-involvement of parents in their adult child’s life is the quickest way to kill romance between two people, especially if one of those people is sane enough to have shirked the authority of their parents post-eighteen years of age.
In the heartbreaking conclusion to the scene, Theresa shares, “I want a guy who will always fight for me. Who will always stand up for me. Who will never let me down. I thought that guy was you.” Because if someone can’t even protect their significant other from the criticism of his parents, then who can he protect her from?