If you’ve been following along with this segment, you might be aware I’ve spent the last several installments picking titles at random — and in a slight panic, with several of them being decided upon (or even watched) at the very last possible second — so it’ll be nice to reintroduce some semblance of consistency here again, in the form of Holiday Cheer movies. Granted, the next several posts should be fairly predictable. Let’s just say that I’ve graduated from scrambling for random film titles to scrambling to find an appropriate monthly theme. 😉 With all that said, I know this entry today revolves around Thanksgiving rather than Christmas but you know what, I’m prepared to take the flak. You want to hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target.
Today’s food for thought: Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Being victimized by public transportation services since: November 25, 1987
I can’t believe I’ve only now sat down to watch for the first time Steve Martin interact with the comedic genius that was (is?) John Candy. Now the real question: is that something I should have admitted?
I suppose it doesn’t matter as I can say with Del Griffith-like confidence that John Hughes’ classic fits snugly into the brand of comedy I cherish more than any other. That’s not to say, however, that Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the kind of story you can’t find reproduced elsewhere. It’s a tried-and-true road trip adventure featuring two distinct personalities who, despite all odds, wind up growing on one another having endured several days’ worth of mishaps that border on the (amusingly) catastrophic. Replete with sight gags and punchlines that, by comparison to today’s standards, feel sophisticated and novel, Planes is of course capped off with a happy and wholly satisfying ending that epitomizes the feel-good spirit of the holiday season.
The film explores the dichotomy of the psychological effects the hectic holiday season has on people. Ignoring the isolated incidents that seem to occur on Black Friday, the day where everyone seems to take pleasure in being their worst selves, the days and weeks leading up to Christmas have potential to be some of the most stressful all year. It’s that reality that Hughes taps into using Martin, who plays an uptight and rather uncharitable marketing executive named Neal Page, and his polar opposite in Candy’s happy-go-lucky, perpetually cheerful shower curtain ring salesman Del. While it might be more comforting — beneficial, even — to assign personalities and dispositions to a spectrum ranging from very negative to positive, there’s no denying the stereotype is alive and well during the holiday shopping season.
In Planes, Neal faces one setback after another in his attempts to get back to his family for Thanksgiving dinner, starting with missing a taxi to the airport that almost causes him to miss his flight home to Chicago from New York. This is where he first bumps into Del, who would later laugh about how amusing it was that Neal tried to steal *his* cab. Wouldn’t you know it, the two end up sitting next to each other on the flight, one that ultimately ends up having to land in Wichita due to a terrible snowstorm in Chicago. Del is quick to remind Neal once on the ground that given the circumstances it will be next-to-impossible to book a hotel room anywhere, and the two end up taking a room at some seedy motel miles away, which sets up the iconic “I don’t judge you, so why do you judge me” speech.
Things only get worse from there, as Neal is faced with the prospect of continuing to travel with Del as he seems to be the only way he’s going to get out of this crummy town. They board a train that later breaks down and end up having to cram into a city bus that threatens to fall apart at any moment. Much to our amusement the quality of transit vehicles only adds to Neal’s mounting frustrations. It all culminates in a literally explosive car ride that sees the pair brought to their knees at yet another cheap-o hotel, where the question finally must be asked: “is it me, or is it just everyone else around me that’s crazy?”
Existential rumination aside, Hughes’ judgment of character development couldn’t have been more satisfying. There are so many instances throughout the course of this escapade where we think there’s no way Del can screw things up any more than they already are; there’s no way Neal can possibly be any more unpleasant than he was trying to rent a car. And yet developments belie expectations, but only to a point. There’s a wonderful scene at another rundown motel in which the pair are confronted by their own consciences. It’s not like the humbling process isn’t unexpected. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Hughes’ filmography, it should come as no surprise the slide into relative despair can’t be sustained; this is a road trip comedy after all. Yet it’s the aesthetics of the scene that really impact. There’s something about the faux-wooden interior of this particular room that resonates warmly.
In the end, Planes‘ episodic nature epitomizes the oft-exaggerated emotions and experiences of the holiday season. Whether it’s finding the ideal gift for a loved one, putting together a master shopping list for the big dinner or simply attempting to shoulder the responsibilities of throwing a seasonal party, this time of year presents stress in many forms. Hughes is keenly aware of that reality, and he has a field day with it thanks to the interplay between these comedic greats.
Recommendation: Planes, Trains and Automobiles satisfies on many levels with its diverse and highly effective collection of comedic situations and running jokes. It’s another one of those entries that makes one sorely nostalgic for the days of quality comedy. Thanks to great turns from Steve Martin and John Candy this is a film that fans can re-watch over and again.
Running Time: 92 mins.
TBTrivia: Perspectives are a funny thing. John Candy and Steve Martin have both named this film as their favorite films of their own. Ask other crew members who worked on the film and they’ll describe the shoot as “hellish,” as they were obligated to drive back and forth between locations on the East Coast and the Midwest since each time they arrived at one place the snow they were hoping to find melted too quickly. According to some crew members, John Hughes was in a terrible mood for much of the process as he was enduring difficult times in his personal life.
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