Thursday, November 22, 2012

CANON OF FILM: "PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES"

PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (1987)

Director/Screenplay: John Hughes



At first glance, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” doesn’t have the making for a classic, much less a holiday classic. It stars two of the great comic actors of all-time at its center, and has a plot that’s practically built for comedy, and it’s filled with dozens of funny laugh-out-loud moments, stretching many forms of comedy. Yet, if you ask people to describe the movie, many times, the first word they’ll use is, "sad." The movie isn’t sad, even the ending, by a simple description, isn’t sad, and yet, even as I think about it, I cry. I cry, every time I view. Actually, it’s been awhile since I’ve sat down and watched “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” all the way through. The movie is so familiar to me that I now only watch it in between commercials of other shows or between shows, for about fifteen minutes to half-hour at a time. I recall my first viewing of the movie rather well, and, not to reiterate a point, but I cried, thinking consciously at the time, that it was only my natural reaction to being young and watching this screwball comedy for the first time, thinking that I’m not going to be fooled by it a second time. Needless to say, I was wrong. The movie appears to be is a simple story of a wealthy businessman and a traveling salesman, both trying to get home for Thanksgiving. It’s sly how John Hughes does it, (“The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Ferris Bueller’s…”) It’s absolutely masterful, as we start to empathize with these characters as they go from one outlandishly funny catastrophe to another in their struggle to get home and Neal’s struggle (Steve Martin) to get away from Del (John Candy), both goals which seem to be becoming utter impossibilities. From a car that gets on fire to a plane being rerouted to Wichita cause of bad weather, to… well, I shouldn’t be describing the events of the film. One of the movie’s famous scenes, includes a situation where both men seem to have mistaken each other for pillows while sleeping in a hotel room. Both men immediately respond by getting up from the bed and in manly terms discuss the last Bears game. This scene echoes one of the film’s themes that there’s an uncomfortableness in people letting strangers get too close to each other. Neal, a successful businessman uses his credit cards and passport as a means of getting around in the world while Del knows the tricks of the trade of living day-to-day and town-to-town. He sells shower curtain rings door-to-door, one of those movie jobs that probably doesn’t really exists and no one has ever seen or heard of elsewhere, although the shower curtain rings lead to really memorable site gag as a way of earning money when they’re in a jam. The movie’s R rating, which was ridiculous then, and remains so now, is due to a famous rant monologue Steve Martin gives to a car rental agent (Hughes favorite, Edie McClurg) which involves the word “fuck” used as every part of the sentence. The performance by Martin, and especially by John Candy make the movie though. Del’s unending desire to please other people is what eventually gets him in trouble, and this wasn’t his first time. Although Neal envisions Del as the devil, a careful viewer notices that he in inexorably nice and hopeful even in the most hopeless of situations. So hopeful that he gets on Neal’s last nerves again and again, but eventually, the film’s true theme of empathy reveals itself in simple scenes where Neal lets Del sleep in the hotel and not in the disintegrating car, and other similar scenes. Only when Neal’s single-minded obsession of getting home is no longer problematic does he realize how human Del is, and how his manic politeness covers up hidden pains. I now realize why the film makes us emotional, for it is Del’s desire to help out others and sorrow, so as not to deal with his own pains in private. The movie seemed to grow in significance, after John Candy’s sudden passing in ’94. He goes so far out of his way to be nice, it’s just a natural response for him. Something about that kind of person, makes it all the more sad knowing that he’s no longer with us. “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, shows that true affection and happiness are outward appearances, including those that are genuine, are still a shield to protect inner turmoil. A comedy that’s funny-as-hell, yet remembered as one of the great tearjerkers. There’s a very short list of films that meet that description.
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