Sunday, June 23, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Planes, Trains, and Automobiles’

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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a comedic romp through the hellscape of the American mass transit infrastructure. Weirdly, watching it today, very little has changed aside from the aesthetics. Oh sure, it’s cleaner and roomier, but the stress and feeling outmanned and outgunned by airlines and such is still as lopsided as ever.

John Hughes is a director of whom there is a great deal of criticism around, rightly so. It would be dishonest to say that Hughes’s work is not steeped in white maleness that at times allows itself to veer into racial stereotypes in an attempt to be diverse. t is also true that despite his faults, he understands the fundamental aspects of who we are as Americans, the bad and the good.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a slice of movie magic. It shouldn’t work and in fact, it hasn’t worked in several attempts to re-make the movie with various other actors. The reason for this is both because of Hughes’s observational eye and that the movie stars Steve Martin and John Candy.

Martin’s Neal Page is just trying to get home. He’s traveling from New York City to Chicago, which to be fair, is all but tempting fate at the best of times much less two days before Thanksgiving. 

Neal is often described as being uptight or cynical, except he is neither. The scene of his wife and kids awaiting his return at the dinner table imply the opposite. Neal’s desire to get home as quickly as possible at all costs shows reveals a sentimental father who wishes to be with his loved ones.

He is stressed though. So much so that his temper is short and at times he can be callous and mean. But Martin plays Neal not as a comedic caricature, though his pratfalls in the movie are beautiful. He plays Neal as a person we’ve all been and known.

Contrast Martin’s Neal with Candy’s affable Del and you have one of cinema’s great pairings. “Del Griffith. American Light And Fixture, Director of Sales, Shower Curtain Ring Division.” 

Candy’s Del Griffith is a whirlwind of a personality. He’s the type of person who can’t help but intrude, veering, at times, into obnoxiousness. But he does it all with such a big heart. We may be annoyed, we are always grateful he is there. Del’s the type of guy when people ask him how he’s doing, he replies with, “Still a million bucks shy of being a millionaire.”

Martin and Candy bounce off each other so easily it’s like watching a cinematic equivalent of Pong. It helps that Hughes, who also wrote the script, allows room for quiet moments and quick back and forths. Both play the straight man and the fool, oftentimes within the same scene.

The sense of humor is surreal but only by the minutest degree. This isn’t a heightened reality but merely a reality whose size has been inflated to fit the silver screen. Take the moment in which Neal firsts meet Del, officially. 

They’ve met before. While Neal was trying to bribe a lawyer for his cab, Del saw an empty cab and took it. Sitting in the airport lobby the two find themselves sitting across from each other. Neal staring daggers at Del while Del peers over the erotic novel he’s reading, “The Candian Mounted,” wondering why the strange man seems so angry at him

As Neal struggles to place Del, he imagines Del in his winter coat and hat behind a yellow taxi cab door. Only Hughes cuts to an actual disembodied taxi cab door, physically inside the airport lobby, with Del behind it. Yes, Hughes could have easily just flashed back to the actual scene when Neal first saw Del. It would have been cheaper and more economical.

But it wouldn’t have been as funny.

Watching Planes, Trains, and Automobiles it’s easy to say that while the movie is good, it’s not that well made. This is because audiences tend to believe that if they can’t see the movie being great, then it is likely not that good. Hughes is concerned with keeping the movie flowing rather than dazzling, so the assumption is that it’s shabbily made.

This is a gross misunderstanding. Edited by Paul Hirsch, Planes Trains and Automobiles is an immaculately edited film. Look at the scene where Neal blows his top and rips into Del. 

Shot by Donald Peterman, it is an emotionally devastating scene. As the argument progresses, Hughes and Peterman move in closer to both Neal and Del, each alone in the frame. Hirsch and Hughes make the unique decision to cut back and forth in an almost conversational manner. We see Neal’s rant, but then we cut back to see Del’s wounded face.

Neal’s annoyance is justifiable. Del, unwittingly, can be an annoying slob. As Neal begins his rant we are on his side. The rhythm of Hirsch’s editing, however, allows us to absorb Neal’s barbs, laugh at them, only to cut to Del’s wounded expression. Hughes forces us to realize both Neal’s cruelty and our own. The editing goes back and forth, always reminding us of Del’s hurt feelings. We start the scene on Neal’s side and end it wanting to hug Del and ask forgiveness.

Of course, nowhere is Hughes’s comedic brilliance evidenced more than the infamous moment in which Del and Neal are driving down on the wrong side of the highway. Hirsch’s brutal editing and Peterman’s precise framing set up one of the films most memorable gags. Seeing both men as skeletons is funny on its own. But Hirsch, Peterman, and Hughes take it to the next level by showing us Neal’s point of view as he looks at Del, now dressed in a cheap Satan outfit—pitchfork, horns, cape, and goatee included—cackling.

The gag exists alongside the moment in Ace Ventura II: When Nature Calls, where Jim Carrey tries to escape a robotic rhinoceros through a hole in its rear, buck naked. It lasts barely more than a second but it’s the surreal cherry on top of an ingeniously hilarious moment. Each time I think surely I won’t cry-laughing this time, and each time I find myself doubled over.

These over-the-top moments are rare in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Much of the humor comes from Martin and Candy playing it subdued. A lesser movie would have had a scene in which the two are given a ride by a local pig farmer played to the hilt. Instead, the driver, Owen (played by the great Dylan Baker) plays it just a little over the top while Candy and Martin stare dumbfounded. 

Talking about his wife, Owen confesses, “Her first baby come out sideways. She didn’t scream or nothing.” Hughes merely cuts to Martin’s pained expression while Candy looks on in wide-eyed astonishment. The humor of Candy’s response isn’t the line itself but Candy’s cadenced delivery of it. “Isn’t that something? You’re a real trooper.” 

Hughes wisely understands that the comedy is as much about the similarities of Neal and Del as the differences. Martin and Candy are playing to the camera, not the rafters, their performance is nuanced and played close to the bone. 

Neal and Del are two sides of the same coin; both are salesmen. Del is a shower ring salesman and Neal is an account executive. What separates them is merely the ever-widening gulf between the classes. 

The ending, though a little too pat, still feels good and fits with the mood of the film. It is a comedy after all. The final closing shot, is an example of sublime perfection, John Candy’s great big lovable smiling face.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles still endures decades after its release. It is a feel-good movie that’s unashamed of its earnestness. But most of all it endures because of Hughes’s deft comedic humanism.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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