Monday, January 30, 2012

Worth Watching: Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

Title: Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Director: John Hughes
Language: English
Rating: R (because of the f-word monologue)

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, Neal Page (Steve Martin) is wrapping up a tedious business meeting in New York City and plans to fly home to Chicago right after. When he leaves the meeting to rush to the airport, he doesn't expect the stressful convoluted journey that follows: a snow storm diverting his flight from Chicago to Wichita, and from there a scramble to get to Chicago via train, bus and car, in the company of a cheerful blabber-mouthed shower curtain ring salesman, Del Griffith (John Candy), who makes it his personal mission to get Neal home in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

This is a good buddy film and road trip movie, because it's funny, because Steve Martin and John Candy are wonderful here (the best I've seen them), and because the movie has surprising moments of depth and sadness. Beneath the humor there's sometimes a good amount of pain, and you don't expect it in a movie like this. The characters have humanity.

Neal Page and Del Griffith sitting on Del's trunk

Del blabs on and on, leaves a mess behind him and laughs at corny jokes. He's big-hearted and friendly, has a large body, lugs a heavy trunk around - a big guy in a number of ways. You can't not notice him. He strikes me as someone who's grateful for any good company or bit of friendliness that comes his way. Happy with little pleasures. He's expansive when it comes to laughter and conversation (or one-sided chatter) but when he's hurt he handles his feelings with restraint, with a bruised dignity; his eyes show a wounded defiance.

It isn't surprising that Neal hurts Del a few times during the movie. Neal is fastidious and reserved, jealous of his personal space. To be thrown into close quarters with a loud messy stranger while his travel plans fall apart is painful for him. He tends to seethe and wince for a while and then snap, hitting at Del or at others with pointed sarcastic insults. But just as Del can be both annoying and lovable, Neal can be "a cold-hearted cynic" (as Del puts it) without coming across as really hateful; inside he's just tired and wants to get home to his wife and kids.

From Del, Neal learns to lighten up a little and be more compassionate to others. From Neal, Del learns... it's hard to say. I guess he realizes at one point, sitting in a burned out shell of a car on a snowy night, that he could try to shut up from time to time. Because Neal is the more finicky character, the one who lacks the common touch, his subtle and gradual change of heart is the real focus of the movie.

Del is his friend, whether Neal likes it or not, and most of the time he really doesn't like it; for much of the movie he goes along with Del out of desperation, because he wants to get home. So that's Del's job: to bring him home, and to wear him down while also unintentionally showing him how to be a better person. And they do have some lovely moments of bonding.

Del Griffith and Neal Page driving

Memorable sights and sounds
Owen. Owen wins for memorable sights and sounds. He's a minor character but he looms large in the mind and senses. The way he says "Stubbville." The way he snorts - not a long loud snort, but a little hog noise that makes his unsmiling face contort. And the look on Neal and Del's faces as they take him in, sort of marveling at him and at the circumstances that have brought him into their lives.

Then there's one of my favorite moments in the film: John Candy doing the Mess Around. It's night. Del is driving while Neal sleeps in the passenger seat. And suddenly Ray Charles is on the radio. This is a beautiful moment, because Del is shimmying and bopping his head and puffing on a cigarette as he pretends to play the piano on the dashboard. John Candy, you are missed.

Stand-out scenes
There are a number of little lines and scenes that jump out. Some of the lines don't sound like much when you aren't familiar with the movie. For instance, "you're going the wrong way." But the "you're going the wrong way" scene is a great example of how the filmmakers and actors took what could have been a conventional scenario in a road trip movie and turned it into something unique and funny.

The same can be said for Neal's f-word monologue. It isn't just about the f-word and its gratuitous use. The lines are delivered with exquisite timing and emphasis (Steve Martin I suspect had a lot of fun with this scene). For reasons that I'll leave you to discover, Neal has sort of lost it, broken down a little from the stress and frustration. But he doesn't rave at people. He still has a certain composure. He can explain himself reasonably well. On the receiving end of his monologue is a woman who works at a car rental agency. She has sweet plump cheeks and a hint of poison in her smile. And the final word belongs to her. (She's played by Edie McClurg, who's also the school secretary in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.) One of the things I like about this movie is that as far as I can remember Neal never gets away with being insulting or rude to anyone; there are always consequences for him, or some sort of sharp wake-up call.

Finally when talking about stand-out scenes I have to mention the part where Neal and Del reach Chicago. It gets to me every time.

Further thoughts
One of the reasons I like this movie is because I grew up with it. This might have been the first R-rated film I watched (except for some of the language most of the film is pretty tame, especially by today's standards). I've lost count of how many times I've watched it or parts of it over the years, usually around Thanksgiving. It's a kind of comfort movie for me.

Neal Page and Del Griffith carrying Del's trunk

*All images link back to their source (Rottentomatoes)