“Six bucks and my left nut says we’re not going to be landing in Chicago.”
We all have our favorite films, and when you have a movie blog, it’s almost obligatory to occasionally push them onto your readers. So, considering we are exactly one week away from Thanksgiving in the United States, I’ve decided to open up my “Favorite Films” series of reviews with what is arguably the greatest comedy to take place at Thanksgiving. Granted, it’s not the most crowded field when it comes to holiday movies — Christmas, being just a bit more universal (or at least extending into the rest of Western civilization) certainly gets the lion’s share of holiday movies — but I am confident that even had John Hughes’ 1987 odd couple comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles been set at Christmas, it would still be a fondly-remembered comedy classic.
From the dialogue, to the plot, to the acting by its two stars, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is just about perfect.
“Anyone who’d pay 50 dollars for a cab, would certainly pay 75.”
“All right. $75. You’re a thief!” “Close, I’m an attorney.”
Any odd couple comedy lives or dies on the strength of the two individuals at the center of the movie. If they are interesting characters, with a strong dynamic between them, played by skilled actors, then the comedy will likely succeed no matter what else is involved in the script. If any of those aspects fail, then the comedy will likely fail as well. John Hughes could not have picked two better actors for his characters. Steve Martin plays to type as the fussy, cynical, slightly misanthropic advertising agent Neal Page. John Candy is the lovable schlub he usually played as shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith. Type-casting isn’t always a bad thing; when you have a pair of actors who do so well at their types, you get solid performances out of both of them. And in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, there really isn’t anything more to the casting; everybody else, from Neal’s wife to the various characters encountered, are just bit parts to flesh out the setting. You’ll recognize certain cameos (Kevin Bacon, Ben Stein, etc.), but the focus is always on Neal and Del. The movie gets everybody else out of the way to bounce these two personalities off of each other (which isn’t to say the one-scene wonders aren’t colorful).
“Hell of a cab ride, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, you don’t see cabs like that too often.”
The plot for this movie is simply Neal Page’s attempts to get home for Thanksgiving. He’s in New York trying to sell a client on an ad campaign, and the meeting runs late. He scrambles to catch a taxi, getting into a race with Kevin Bacon to catch one, but tripping over a piece of luggage belonging to one Del Griffith. He attaches no significance to this, but the audience knows this is just the beginning. Missing out on that taxi, he attempts to buy the rights to a taxi from someone else who has hailed one. After paying $75 to use the taxi, he finds it driving off without him, as someone else — someone with a big, round face — has swooped in before him. When he eventually gets to the airport, he finds the flight has been delayed, giving him a chance to meet Del, who is sincerely apologetic about inadvertently stealing Neal’s cab. Then Neal gets bumped into coach, alongside… you guessed it… Del Griffith.
“I know you don’t I? I’m usually very good with names but I’ll be damned if I haven’t forgotten yours.” “You stole my cab.”
At this point it’d be easy to believe that Neal Page has been the subject of a gypsy curse in the form of Del; many odd couple movies make it pretty clear that the one guy would be much better off without the other, that the less orderly one is just a pain and a nuisance to be endured. But Planes, Trains, and Automobiles doesn’t go down that route. First, Neal has bad luck even when Del isn’t around. It’s fate that is working against him, not Del Griffith. Second, Del undergoes much of the same bad luck as Neal does. It’s just that Del rolls with it a lot better. And that’s the third, most important thing; Del is just plain likeable. He’s a schlub, sure. He talks too much, he has poor awareness of personal space, he has bad habits. But he’s honest, and genuinely kind-hearted. After an early incident when Neal snaps and berates Del, Del responds with a speech of his own. But it’s not a rant, and it’s the farthest thing from an attack. It’s an admission that he’s not perfect, followed by a statement that he’s not going to change who he is. He’s not even angry when he says it, just a little sad that Neal felt the need to hurt him. And Neal quietly backs down.
“I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.”
Del’s right, as well. His customers do like him, and he gets Neal out of more situations than he gets him into, simply by virtue of his ability to get people to like him. Neal isn’t quite so good at it — a consequence of marketing for corporations instead of working in direct sales perhaps? — and when on a bus his attempt at a sing-along fails because nobody else knows the words to “Three Coins in the Fountain”. But he’s trying. And that’s the other thing that really makes this odd couple work. The fussy, uptight guy isn’t a jerk either. He has jerkish tendencies, sure, but he’s not malicious, just thin on patience. We see Neal’s better nature not long into the film, when they’re departing a broken-down train, and Neal sees Del struggling to lug his trunk across the field to the highway where they’re to be picked up. Neal’s been trying to get away from Del since the original flight. He purposely got them seats in different compartments on the train. But when seeing Del struggle, he goes right up and picks up the other end of the trunk.
“Is this your trunk?” “Yeah. You should try lugging this thing
around New York City.”
But, of course, there’s more to this movie than just being heart-warming. It’s an odd-couple comedy, not an odd-couple family movie (in fact, it’s rated “R” due largely in part to an epic “F”-bomb laden rant from Neal at a rental company.) The movie builds the comedy slowly, with a few laughs early on, and then keeps piling it on as it goes until you’re busting up at absurdities that have come to be completely natural. It starts with a missed taxi, then a delayed flight, then a diversion to Wichita… and builds until the audience has no trouble believing that Neal and Del have such bad luck that they’d have to hitch a ride in the back of a pick-up in 1 degree weather, get stuck on a broken-down train, or have a rental car catch fire.
It’s a hundred and two miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, it’s dark, and… huh. Would you look at that?
Even better than the spontaneous gags are some of the ones that the movie takes its time building up. Early on, there’s a scene in which Del and Neal use similar cards to pay for a hotel room. The clerk inadvertently switches the cards before returning them. This pays off almost an hour later in the movie, long after the audience has probably forgotten about it, and when it finally comes, it’s absolutely hilarious — partly because it’s become new again, and partly because the rest of the movie helped to set it up. It’s not the only delayed delivery — in fact, another is part of the set-up for that joke’s pay-off — but it’s the longest one and probably the best one.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles manages the rare feat of being both drop-dead funny and heartwarming all at the same time. Rather than relying on shallow, two-dimensional caricatures, it makes Neal and Del into real characters, both with good points and bad points, who react in different ways to events, but both do so in ways that are believable for their basic nature. Neal rants, Del grins and bears it, and after the car bursts into flames, they both join in with the audience, laughing, having realized that their luck is so absurdly bad that there is simply no other sane response. And when it’s all said and done, they’ve both grown a little wiser, and a lot closer.
It’s one of my favorite films, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you check it out.
“As much fun as I’ve had on this little journey, I’m sure one day I’ll look back on it and laugh.”