[6 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s a shame that John Hughes died when he did. In self-imposed exile for most of the last decade, he was clearly talented and certainly had more to offer the world of entertainment than his flawless teen comedies of the ‘80s and the less successful remakes and family films of the ‘90s.
Proof of such possibilities came back in 1987, in the form of his first “adult” effort, the holiday themed Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (recently re-released on DVD). Relying on the undeniable chemistry of comedians Steve Martin and John Candy, and trading on the Thanksgiving theme to explore issues of family, friendship, and loss, it marked a radical departure from the coming of age growing pains of his previous films.
It also proved that Hughes could direct something other than slapstick and/or schmaltz. For all its physical shtick, this is one buddy film that relies less of humor and more on heart.
Our story begins the week of Turkey day. Advertising executive Neil Page (a nicely moderated Martin) is in New York, trying to wrap up an account before the holiday starts. Desperate to get home to his family in Chicago, he dreads the next few hours. Still, all he has to do is catch a cab, make his plane, survive the flight, and it’s a few fun days of wife, kids, and candied yams - that is, until he boards the aircraft.
There he meets traveling shower curtain accessories salesman Del Griffith (Candy at his very best). A massive mountain of a man, this overly earnest passenger takes an instant liking to Neil and as they prepare to depart, they strike up a casual friendship.
Then, disaster hits. O’Hare is snowed in and no flights can land. Neil and Del end up in Wichita, Kansas and with hotels all booked and no rental cars available, they have to figure out a way to get from the Midwest to Lake Michigan, lest they miss the festivities all together.
One has to give Hughes credit; the premise for Planes, Trains, and Automobiles remains as unique today as it did 22 years ago. Sure, now we have cellphones and PDAs, means for any traveler to take the BS by the horns and improve their chances of getting home for the holidays, but way back during the waning days of the Reagan era, getting around during the madhouse that is Thanksgiving week was a challenge of low tech Herculean proportions—and the talented writer/director makes the most of it.
Some of the material may be straight out of an old burlesque skit (Candy and Martin having to share a bed) and a few jokes do trade on the guys’ individual flaws (Neil marveling at Del’s cavernous underwear), but thanks to the shared experience that both of these divergent personalities have to go through, because of how their yin/yang archetypes play against and into each other, we come to identify and sympathize with their plight.
And then Hughes pulls out all the sentimental stops. Few can remember how devastating Del’s secret is now that it’s become part of cinematic common knowledge (don’t worry - we won’t spoil it here), but it stands as the kind of risk that the Ferris Bueller filmmaker wasn’t really known for taking. Most of his movies ended happily, narratives tripping over the occasional problem or personal pothole before reaching a kind of zany Zen optimism.
But Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was different. It was meant to be serious and edgy. It was made to explore more mature elements in a person’s life. Martin’s harried ad man just wants his workday to be over so he can find his way back home. Candy, on the other hand, must cover up the truth so as not to look desperate or pathetic - and he does such a great job that when the reveal arrives, it’s stunning.
Indeed, this is the best these two ‘70s icons have ever been in a comedy. Both are poised, polished, and well moderated. Martin is more or less the straight man, forced to forage for laughs in hilarious putdowns of car rental agency personnel and his traveling companion’s cockeyed cheerfulness.
Candy’s part is more complicated. Sure, he’s the fat man with quasi-questionable social skills (never, ever, take off you shoes in a closed aircraft, John) and many of the jokes come at his physical expense, but this makes for a more meaningful finale.
It’s a mutual discovery that both Neil and the audience have misjudged Del, elevating his human pratfall into something almost noble. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, especially since Candy was a genius at finding the complexities within the cliché. In a film that has basically two main focuses to lead us through the plotting, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles couldn’t ask for two better guides.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this film is nowhere to be seen on the new “Those Aren’t Pillows” Edition of the DVD. According to reports, Hughes shot almost twice as much film as a normal production does, leading to an initial three hour cut that is less a movie and more a montage of alternate takes, extended sequences, failed bits, and other character subtext.
While this “holy grail” version of the film has long been coveted by fanatical lovers of the title, Hughes himself hinted it would never see the light of day. Not only was it a mess, he argued, but it was more or less “rotting” away in Paramount’s vault. Now, with his death, there is probably no call to see such a sloppy first attempt.
At least this new disc has a few fun features, including three EPK like looks at the film itself, Hughes’ attempts at making movies for adults, and the talent that was John Candy. The sole deleted scene about airplane food is interesting, but not necessarily funny.
Hughes would go on to try another adult theme with the pregnancy-oriented She’s Having a Baby, starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern. It was not as successful for reasons that continue to remind us of how wonderful Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is.
No matter what you think of Martin now (Pink Panther remakes? Please…) or how Candy eventually ended up, this was a pinnacle for all parties involved. It was the moment when Hughes was seen as finally casting off the angst of adolescent America and instead embraced the equally complicated complaints of 20- to 35-somethings.
While we’ll never know if he had another classic in him (one can’t judge based on the silly scripts he contributed recently), it’s safe to say that John Hughes has a secure legacy in Hollywood laughfests. No matter the age bracket, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles stands as one of his very best.