Sunday, December 7, 2014

Plain Strain: An 80's Comedy fails to travel to 2014

Movie Review: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Director: John Hughes

Reviewed: 7 December 2014

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

In my quest to see films of my youth, films that I heard about or saw clips of but was never old enough or had the opportunity to view, I have returned to Planes, Trains and Automobiles while having a general, fuzzy feeling of its key scenes and emotional cues. I was nine when the film came out, and the 1987 John Hughes comedy does not stand up despite the good will generated by the avuncular John Candy and an irritable, scenery-chewing Steve Martin. But, as an artifact of its time period and as a mismatched buddy road movie, the film has its moments, mostly because of Candy's ineffable charm. John Hughes is not the most complex or skilled director, and here his synth-infused soundtracks, wacky jump cuts, and general sloppiness with the script and characters catch up to him in a way that I feel it never does in Ferris Bueller's Day Off or Uncle Buck.

Neal Page is an uptight businessman in a rush to get home for Thanksgiving. He meets cute with Del Griffith, a fellow traveler, by tripping over his mammoth trunk on the street while trying to get to a cab to the airport in time to fly home. A series of bizarre and increasing contrived obstacles place Neal and Del on the same plane and the same set of circumstances. Both men need to get to Chicago, and the world keeps conspiring against them AND placing them together. Neal's high-strung reserved nature clashes with Dell's slovenly loquaciousness, and as the time ticks down to the holiday, they make their way slowly and painfully across a mostly stereotypical anonymous middle west of weirdos and lunatics to arrive at the North Shore of Chicago in time for turkey.

Hughes knew that he had something with the pairing of John Candy and Steve Martin, both skilled and beloved comedic actors. They have a chemistry and a charisma that simply works, no greater highlighted than in the infamous sharing the hotel bed scene. A regular medium two-shot between them highlights the curliness of Candy's hair and the grey of Martin's, the physicality and bulk of Candy and the slenderness of Martin. Candy is willing to hold to Del's own unique set of logic dictating that he must be comfortable in a car, sing along to a Ray Charles song while driving erratically, and exist as a sort of low-level Willy Loman and confidence man, the Abe Froman of shower curtain rings. Martin plays a driven corporate type, stomping and falling all over airports and parking lots, an exasperated yuppie pacing back and forth, with a Howard Beale-esque fuse culminating in a quite wonderful Mad-As-Hell-Moment at a rental car counter mid-film, and Edie McClurg delivers the film's best punchline. Ultimately, however, Hughes does not seem interested in truly developing either character or the family characters at Neal's home. The lack of communication between Neal and his wife is left unaddressed, as well as her possible fears that Neal is having an affair.  The actress is given nothing to do. There is also a distinct lack of payoff at the end when the characters seem to have come to some realizations but are never given opportunities to verbalize them.

An elegiac air lingers around this film, and not just because Candy and Hughes have both passed. The idea of loneliness around the holidays seems antithetical to the commercials and ethos of the time yet as real as the dirty slushy streets of the midwest. Hughes creates an interesting character in the quirky Del Griffith, a man wearing a facade and clearly haunted and in pain. Sadly, Hughes never seems interested in letting Del be more than a punch line at worst or at best, a knowing, teary-eyed fellow without an adult voice. Del is only there for the joke and Neal's empty quasi-redemption, nothing more.

I do not think this film holds up though it is not without its moments.

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