So I Just Watched: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Eighth in a series of disorganized thoughts I am left with immediately after watching something.

Thanks to Comedy Central, I’ve never seen John Hughes’s 1987 frenemy road comedy all the way through, or in a format that wasn’t cut for time and content, and edited to fit my screen.  Hey, my screen is versatile!  Don’t be so presumptuous.

It’s a very simple concept, at its core: mine the annoyances of travel and dealing with strangers for as much as gold as you can.  The key players are two comic kingpins in their respective golden ages, Steve Martin as Steven Martin (cranky version), and John Candy as John Candy (overbearing version).  Okay, there’s more than that, but their respective backgrounds take a back seat to the escalating frustrations and tribulations of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

So, what’s the story?

Well, Steve’s successful but smug, and our strict but benevolent God above has decided that he needs to lighten up, pal!  So he sets forth a series of trials for his young disciple, that he may suffer through them and grow in His good graces.  I’m editorializing a bit.

Setting aside the understanding that anything that can go wrong must, the disasters that befall Neal and Del (oh yeah, that’s what the characters’ names are) at least tend to unfold in an organic way.  Weather halts air traffic.  They are robbed in the night… did shit like that actually ever happen, with dudes breaking into individual hotel rooms while the occupants slept unawares?  I suppose it’s possible, just never something I’ve heard of/read about.  Lot harder to overcome a key card reader with a steak knife now, anyway.  A train breaks down.  Okay, things do get cartoonish with everything that happens to their rental car, which survives a near head-on encounter with two semis, spins out, and catches fire, but is still amazingly driveable.  However, by that point, the escalation of divine cruelties visited upon Grumpy Steve Martin–I mean Neal–is such that dippin’ the toe into the ol’ pool of surreality isn’t unexpected.

Shepherding Neal through these tribulations is Del Griffith: shower curtain ring salesman, personal space invader and master of coming on too strong.  The dramatic hook, revealing his effective near-decade of homelessness following the untimely death of his wife (spoiler alert on a twenty-six-year-old movie, gang!) provides a pretty plausible explanation for his demeanor.  He’s been trying to fill that void however he can, reaching out desperately to other people, and finally finding a reluctant partner in Neal.  He’s also apparently a pretty good shower curtain ring salesman, hitting the pavement, closing deals throughout the midwest.  His endless reservoir of favors owed is testament to that.

For as much as “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” wants to invest in character as a driver for its comedy, I think it’s actually at its best when it indulges in a variety of slapstick/physical sketches throughout.  From the opening minutes of a meeting, played in pure silence, it all comes down to timing, glances, body language and seeping, hissing tension.  I find that kind of comedic art far more complex and rewarding when done right… it’s easier to affect a voice and say something in a funny way than it is to wring humor out of subtly glancing back and forth at one’s watch and at the intractable boss at the head of the room whose indecision over a cosmetics advertisement is keeping you from your family.

When the players were left to act physically and emote, it connected more squarely with my funny bone.  Other such moments I enjoyed: Martin and Kevin Bacon(!) racing against each other on opposite sides of a street in pursuit of a cab.  Taking a shower in a crummy motel bathroom.  Much of the stuff in the car, from Candy fiddling with the power seat, to him getting his jacket tangled up therein, and the descent into giddy disbelief following the near-wreck.  Car’s on fire!  What else can you do at that point but laugh?

Martin and Candy’s performances are so naturalistic that several otherwise comedic moments might actually be a little disturbing if not for the “don’t worry, it’s safe to laugh” stings from Ira Newborn’s (rather intrusive) synth score.  Oh, 80’s!  You just didn’t know how to score a movie without a big ol’ Casio and a drum machine in front of you, did you?  The darkness of a moment where Neal actually turns physically violent against Del (and then pratfalls over a steamer trunk) is unnecessarily counter-emphasized with an exaggerated “oh my goodness!” kind of musical beat.

But then, this is a wide-release John Hughes film that is, while not aiming for the lowest common denominator, certainly a populist comedy.  There’s a circle of mainstream humor it dances within, coming close to the edges a few times, but never really stepping over.

In one scene, while they’re on a bus through St. Louis, Del has taken to organizing sing-alongs with the other passengers.  This  reminded me of a scene in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” where he’s hitching a ride in a box car with a cheerful hobo, whose incessant singing drives Pee-Wee to bail from the train in motion, but Neal does not have this luxury.  Given the opportunity to pick a song, though, he chooses “Three Coins in a Fountain”, which is not fringe or indie by any means, but it’s at least a bit classy, sophisticated, poetic.  Nobody goes for it, though, and Del steps in to offer the Flintstones theme song, which gets everyone going.  That’s the heart guiding the film’s proceedings, to me.  It’ll go for the big, familiar, catchy comedic beats, the ones everyone knows and loves.  It may not be an aficionado’s darling, but some things have a dopey appeal even they will have to admit to liking sometimes.

It does push the boundaries a bit… it did earn an R rating after all, due to the fleeting inclusion of some nudie mag cut-outs in one overly modded hot-rod taxi.  Oh yeah, and the not-so-fleeting ‘fuck’ scene, pitting Martin at his grumpiest against chipper Minnesota-nice comedic veteran Edie McClurg.  In 1987, only a few years after “Scarface”, this many ‘fucks’ all packed together like that was still probably pushing the boundaries of decency.  Would it play in the sticks?  I guess America was ready after all!  I grew up in the shadow of “The Big Lebowski” and a much more informed appreciation for that word’s versatility, so, fuckin’ a, man.

I find it interesting from a structural perspective that this breakdown happens even before the worst of Neal’s experiences, being those during the car ride.  In retrospect, he may have wanted to save a few of those fucks for later.  Though I suppose it’s appropriate that at the time of the car fire, he’s all out of fucks to give.

So, by the end of it, Steve Martin gets home, and realizes aforementioned spoiler about John Candy’s life, he welcomes him into the home just in time for Thanksgiving dinner.  Not gonna lie, that moment did hit me emotionally, because there was enough time spent fleshing out these characters and their arcs.  In the end, it’s a solid if straightforward film, but I’m glad to have seen it as originally intended, and no longer peppered with  Home Depot commercials and promos for The Daily Show.


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