Thursday, November 24, 2016

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

Director: John Hughes                                   Writer: John Hughes
Film Score: Ira Newborn                                Cinematography: Donald Peterman
Starring: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins and William Windom

I never really cared much for John Hughes’ films. In comedic terms they try to play too heavily on sentiment and as a result the comedy and the drama become mutually exclusive rather than complementing each other. It’s a bit like what Judd Apatow tries to do today, and it just doesn’t sit well because the sentiment seems grafted on rather than integral to the story. But Hughes did make a couple of films that rose above the rest, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off in 1986, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles from the following year. The later is probably the peak of his career and because the sentiment is absent, for the most part, throughout much of the film it’s more successful than the rest. It’s also one of the great Thanksgiving films of all time, comedy or no. The film was certainly a departure for the writer-director, as he had been associated almost exclusively with teen comedies for most of his career. In this outing he has two veteran comedians starring in the film, doing his interpretation of a buddy picture. Steve Martin benefitted tremendously from the picture, breaking out after a string of rather juvenile films for Carl Reiner and taking his career in a new direction as a straight man. Candy would continue to work with Hughes for a while, even starring in Uncle Buck, but his career was cut short by his untimely death in 1994.

The film opens two days before Thanksgiving in New York, with Steve Martin and Lyman Ward in an advertising meeting with client William Windom who can’t decide on which layout to go with for his cosmetics firm. With time ticking down until Martin’s flight home to Chicago leaves, Ward assures him he’ll never get a cab. When they’ve finally been spring loose and are down on the street, the only cab Martin finds has also been spied by Kevin Bacon and the two race for it. But just as Martin is about to win, he trips over the steamer trunk of John Candy and misses out. After taking the bus to the airport, Martin finds out his plane has been delayed anyway. He and Candy meet at the boarding gate and are seated together on the flight, much to Martin’s dismay. The story is an updated version of The Odd Couple, with the finicky Martin having to endure the slobbish behavior of Candy. While in the air the Chicago airport becomes snowed in and the two are forced to land in Wichita, and though Candy is able to get them the last hotel room in town it only has one double bed and the two are forced to sleep together. It’s then that Martin’s disgust gets the better of him and he takes it out verbally on Candy. Martin immediately regrets it, but this is probably the moment that cements whatever substitutes for friendship in their relationship. The mishaps continue, with the train breaking down the following morning, riding a bus to the airport, and renting a car that catches on fire later that night.

The entire film is just one long endurance contest for Steve Martin, and the comedy comes from seeing just how much of John Candy’s grotesqueries he can stand. It’s actually pretty impressive for just how many of those situations Hughes can come up with, Candy taking his shoes and socks off in the plane, washing his socks in the sink and destroying the bathroom at the hotel, as well as shaking a handful of tobacco spit, being crammed into a bus together, almost getting run over in the snow, and riding in a burned out car. One of the great delights of the picture is the plethora of guest stars that populate the film, popping up everywhere along the line. Windom is an absolute delight in the opening as the silent executive who can’t make up his mind, and returns in the final button to the film after the credits. In addition to Kevin Bacon, and Lyman Ward who was so effective as the clueless father in Ferris Beuller, Larry Hankin is a maniacal cab driver, Dylan Baker is a hayseed truck driver, Martin Ferrero is the night watchman at a hotel, and Michael McKean plays a state trooper. Edie McClurg is a particular standout as the rude agent at the rental car agency that Martin blows up at. While Steve Martin’s performance is rather stylized when he gets angry or tries to run, it’s simply part of his overall aesthetic. Candy, on the other hand, is a natural. The two are, in fact, an odd couple, and that’s what makes them work so well together.

The best sequence in the film has to be when the two are driving in the middle of the night in a rental car. John Candy is terrific pretending to play along with Ray Charles’ “The Mess Around” and gets not only one but both of his arms caught on the seat and nearly crashes the car. The two get turned around and when they get back on the road they are going the wrong way on the freeway. Two semi trucks bear down on them and as they are caught between Martin’s face turns into a skull, and when he looks over at Candy his nemesis has suddenly transformed into a laughing devil. When the car eventually catches on fire it’s the icing on the cake to a laugh out loud scene. Laila Robins plays Martin’s wife who is waiting for him at home with the kids, but her sequences are the least interesting in the film. The soundtrack relies heavily on pop and country tunes, and while the whole thing suffers from eighties datedness the actual compositions by Ira Newborn still hold up well and by this time have become an integral part of the experience. The relentless nature of the trip home and the comedy that John Hughes manages to wring out of it is a really wonderful thing to watch. Though the two men become better people as a result of their travels together, that really isn’t the point. The journey’s the thing. And for generations, that journey home to Thanksgiving has been made palatable by watching Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles and thinking, “at least it isn't that bad.”

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