November 28, 2013

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

John Hughes, 1987
Neal Page (Steve Martin) is a marketing executive rushing to catch a plane from New York to Chicago two days before Thanksgiving. Struggling to flag down a taxi cab, he has to pay a stranger off quickly to take theirs only to have it abruptly stolen from him by shower-ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy). Little does he know his confrontations with Del would continue to become unavoidable as an unlikely friendship forms over the bad circumstances that he continues to fall into.

A heartfelt picture, light on story but carrying comedic weight. Made in a time when Steve Martin was making crowds laugh, and not making them listen to him playing banjo. You are hit with the stick of the time period early on with the very present synthesizer sounds. You continue to be constantly reminded that you are in the 1980's with the automobiles, clothing, vibrating beds, primitive credit card machines with paper carbon slips, smoking indoors. Bad karma has struck Neal. His misfortune continues to mount, as Chicago continues to feel further and further away. Opposites attract because they have to when you are unavoidably stuck with the other person. Interestingly the sense of the film being dated is felt with the evident homophobia when they wake up in bed with each other and have to force a Chicago Bears reference to prove to each other, you know, that they aren't into that kind of thing.

The obvious concept quite early on is that they are living in very different worlds. Not only from a social class perspective. When any little conflict may arise in Neal's day, his whole world is shaken up. Not a good way to live your life, as it only sets you up for constant disappointment. Your flight is cancelled? Big deal. You can get the next one. Car broken down? Big deal, it can be fixed. It can always get worse. And it will. Life is not about stepping over everyone around you to get to your destination. It's about community, living in the moment, savoring the experience - regardless of how horrible it can be. While Del Griffith's character is an exaggeration of the annoying heavy-set guy (the coughing in the motel room is a bit much), he is likable nonetheless because of his obvious sense of optimism. He's been in the run down motel rooms before. He knows how to make the best of a situation. Neal is so caught up in his own life that he barely gives Del's life experience any thought. By the time that he does during a reflective state, Hughes has to wrap up the film quite quickly. And while the final moments of the film are played out effectively, they do feel a bit rushed and ultimately predictable. So clearly the film is not without it's flaws, but to be fair it was not made to break ground. To it's credit - the story opens up, delivers consistent laughs, and wraps it all up nicely. Perhaps it could be credited with influencing later slapstick films with stranded pairs like Dumb and Dumber or Tommy Boy. It's an amusing Thanksgiving story with a lot of situational comedy. Loaded with characters like a lot of Hughes' other work. And it certainly makes you miss the late great John Candy.

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