PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' Celebrates Its 30th Anniversary at a Time We Need It Most

Steve Martin, John Candy (Image courtesy gettyimages.com / IMDB)

The nostalgic beauty of Planes, Trains and Automobiles — aside from a delicious '80s synth score — is its fleshy, alive representation of different economic classes having to deal with one another absent easy technological escapes.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is celebrating its 30th Anniversary at a time when real-time human compassion feels amiss in an increasingly unapologetic society based on distant communications over cell phones, computers, and other online gadgetry. Released in 1987, Director John Hughes' rendered a hilarious and poignant film that would prove to be particularly relevant in the upcoming years.



Planes, Trains and Automobiles

John Hughes

Cast: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins

(Paramount)

10 Oct 2017

In a crucial scene from the screwball holiday classic, corporate ad man Neal Page (Steve Martin) brutally assails shower ring curtain salesman Del Griffith (John Candy) in a motel room in Wichita, Kansas. Del had just saved Neal, a fellow traveler to Chicago days before Thanksgiving, from a sleepless evening at an airport after their flight was grounded by a snowstorm. Now Neal has to share a bed with a kind but babbling slob with a nasty case of sinusitis. Neal, so self-entitled and narcissistic that he expects even generosity and kindness to tightly conform to his high brow standards, unleashes a soul-crushing riff onto Del.

The scene is remarkable as two titans of American comedy forced one another to expose their dark underbellies in a literally strange-bedfellows setting. Candy was a physically enormous actor, and he did everything big, from screwy blunders to surprisingly vulnerable moments. Here, he is the perfect counterpart for Martin, whose tightly coiled veneer could hardly stand a wrinkle, let alone Candy's whirlwind of comedic disorder and emotions.

When Neal finally blows his gasket, his speech is a narcissist's manifesto not only against Del, but against any human being who condescends to enter his pristine universe. However, it is Del's response — which Candy portrays through a mix of extreme hurt, anger, and stupefaction — that is the heart of the scene. Unless Neal is a totally compassionless wretch (Martin is able to tow that line without crossing it), he has no choice but to face a human being he just hurt standing five feet in front of him. When Neal quietly gets back into bed, there's some growth through remorse.

Neal — a wiry, tightly coiled ball of elitism—would have liked nothing more than to handle his travel hitches with an Uber and an Android. But Neal has no such reprieve in 1987, when he has to share that motel with Del. Likewise, Del exists in a world where some found his jocose and loquacious personality — full of meandering anecdotes, platitudes ("like your job, love your wife") and potty humor ("six dollars and a nut says he don't land in Chicago") — as a welcome substitute to outright loneliness and isolation. Of course, now a computer can substitute Del, and Neal would likely be the guy doing the substituting.

The nostalgic beauty of Planes, Trains and Automobiles — aside from a delicious '80s synth score — is its fleshy, alive representation of different economic classes having to deal with one another absent easy technological escapes. Consider this the anti-Hallmark Holiday film: people curse, make out in public, speak in platitudes, and retell the same jokes; generally, they are coarse and loud, imperfect, but not without love. Hughes understood that Thanksgiving week really isn't too different from any other, which will come as a relief to anyone looking for a holiday film that opts to balance warm moments with some sharp humor on everyday human behavior.

While Planes, Trains and Automobiles shouldn't be confused for an acute character drama, Neal's psychological arc develops nicely throughout the film's episodic structure of hyperbolic comedic situations. Consider the change from Neal's calculated verbal knifing of Del at the motel to his gentler sarcastic approach when Del (in hilarious fashion) really messes things up later in the film. This not mere buddy comedy material but a portrayal of character growth with a dangling hope that Neil will eventually graduate to a richer, sincere way to communicate.

Candy thrives in the role of a Pollyanna everyman who guides Neal through two days of botched transportation plans. They get robbed; a disabled train stalls their trip; they have to ride in cars and trucks with an eccentric cast of drivers and passengers. Candy and Martin engage in lively "odd couple" wordplay throughout, and a steady flow of screwball situations and sight-gags keep the film's comedic energy bubbling until its heart-wrenching final reveal.

Hughes does a masterful job of shifting gears from comedy to poignant realizations as to keep Planes, Trains and Automobiles from falling into a comedian highlight reel. There's a lovely bus scene halfway through the film where everyone is singing jolly TV sitcom songs. The cinematography is particularly sweet — a little bit of that late afternoon light floods through the bus windows as families go home for the holidays.

In the scene, it sounds like Del is leading the charge, while Neal uncomfortably follows. When the song ends, Neal tries to throw his own selection into the mix ,"Three Coins in the Fountain", a Frank Sinatra song from a 1950s romantic comedy of the same title renowned mainly by film critics for its sumptuous cinematography and intelligent dialogue, but not for its mainstream box office appeal.

Neal, however, is so locked into his worldview, he goes out of his way to confirm his berth away from pedestrian pop cultural references. When Neal's strained effort flatlines, Del recharges the chorus with the theme song from The Flintstones. Martin's crestfallen face is sympathetic, but Candy's expression is even more compelling: Del looks at Neal compassionately, even pleadingly, like a big dog trying to get his Master to come out and play.

"Just roll with it," Del he says to Neal at one point in the film, and Neal sort of gets what this means on an empathetic level as the film concludes. It's an important realization for one to make, particularly in this day and age. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a film which grows better and more necessary to learn from in an increasingly judgmental, disconnected world where the Neal Pages seem to be outnumbering and overpowering the Dell Griffiths.

A smorgasbord of nostalgic goodies await including a tribute to John Candy, and a number of segments on John Hughes including his making of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and a retrospective on his influence on cinema.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.