Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

Directed by John Hughes

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Goddamn this film is just so sweet.  It’s an odd couple pairing, the pursed lipped Steve Martin and blabber-mouthed John Candy, and yet it avoids certain cliches perhaps because the subtext of their discord is brought into the open so early in the film.

Before any of their travels get too crazy the two men will have already aired their grievances, well mostly Neal (Martin) just firing off everything about Del (Candy) that has been driving him crazy.  It’s Del who silently stands there, takes it with nothing more than a slightly quivering lip, then composes himself and recites back the well-known speech…

“You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you… but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. Well, you think what you want about me; I’m not changing. I like… I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.”

The film is staged and scored like a climactic moment.  It pays off so much of the story’s subtext up until this point in time that it’s hard to fathom how there’s still an hour left in the story.  And yet it works because… well why does it work?  Del still gets on Neal’s nerves, and they remain an odd couple pairing, deliberately antithetical, but there is some understanding between them, perhaps of just the ways the universe can conspire against you.

It’s that understanding which gives the story its heart.  We don’t have to watch Neal hide behind closed doors to conceal his growing rage with his traveling partner, and we don’t have to wait for the big blowup to happen because it already has.  Instead they work pretty well together, even as things go horribly wrong.  The story builds not to some big emotional fallout, though there are low moments, but to a moment of unrivaled warmth.  Sure it’s sentimental, but f*ck it, it’s wonderful.

Just like drama, comedy is squeezed from conflict.  It’s better to have opposites jam-packed together to see what happens then two people who want the same thing.  And yet there is plenty of comedy pulled from a dynamic that sees Neal and Del on the same side.  We see them up against a wall of sh*t together, and it’s that camaraderie between them that is both wholesome and amusing.  That they eventually submit themselves to the forces that work against them is all the more poetic and, again, entertaining.

Like with John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, this seems like such a simple, mass-marketed premise but with so much depth underneath.  There’s something cosmic about Neal’s and Del’s plight, just as there was about Ferris Bueller’s legendary sick day.

It’s that depth and the warmth between the two characters that I suppose allows for the film’s absurd obstacles, all while maintaining a deeply human, tender catharsis.  The film ends with the two characters finally going their own ways, only for Neal to realize that Del has nowhere to go.  It’s a wonderfully edited moment, and I wonder if it was discovered in post-production or written into the script.  Neal sits on the subway headed home, his mind flashing to images of his loved ones whom he’s about to see.  Then the images start to become ones we’re familiar with, from his journey with Del.  His smile flickers, and we relive certain moments that clue us into Del’s reality, that his wife has passed away, and that he has no home.

So yeah, maybe it’s sentimental and cheesy, but it’s a moment that celebrates everything the characters have endured and that they’ve endured at all.  In movies such as this it seems like the audience is the one to celebrate and admire what the characters have been through while the characters themselves just keep on chugging along, unable to appreciate or even acknowledge what they’ve been through.  To them it’s just a frustrating few days, but in here the characters can and do laugh at the absurd obstacles thrown their way.

In one such moment they sit on the side of a highway after surviving a potentially deadly collision.  Their backs light up with the warm light of a fire, then one of them turns around, sees that their car is aflame and turns back, saying nothing.  Then the other does the same.  They are so defeated and/or so relieved to just be alive that they can’t be bothered to raise a fuss now.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this, just that a film like this subverts some of our expectations for how people behave in conflict with each other and the universe.  Rather than having everything build and build so that the biggest outward obstacle joins the biggest emotional moment, the characters slowly grow together while the world conspires against them.  They are beaten down over the course of the story, their walls already crumbled in the first thirty minutes.  They instead submit themselves to the universe and to each other.

Up Next: The Last Metro (1980), Close-Up (1990), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)

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