|Planes, Trains & Automobiles|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 21 November 2000|
Occasionally, John Hughes gave signs of being able to write comedies for adults as well as for teenagers and children; his best grownup effort is probably this erratic but often funny road movie. It's essentially Oscar Madison and Felix Unger cast adrift in the wintry Midwest, the Odd Couple on wheels (and as such is far better than 'The Odd Couple II,' which literally was Oscar and Felix on wheels). It keeps threatening to be better than it is, and Hughes keeps returning Steve Martin and John Candy to a kind of equilibrium, so that neither is caricatured as much as always seems about to be the case.
This sense that at any moment, the movie could get really bad, continues throughout the film; it creates a kind of tension, but it isn't necessarily a good kind of tension -- this is hardly a suspense film, after all. This uneasy anticipation stems from Hughes hauling in slapstick whenever things seem to be slowing down, but the rest of the film is in a more realistic mode. He doesn't have a firm grip on the movie's style, but fortunately Martin and Candy do.
John Candy was a great, great sketch comic, as anyone who saw "SCTV" can attest. Though tall and fat, he threw himself with vigor into any characterization, from self-pitying playboys to Julia Child. His broad, energetic performances were tempered by his imagination and his great sense of timing -- but they weren't really characterizations, and it is in that area that he always had a handicap. It was very difficult for him to disappear into a character; his work as an actor almost always seemed to be all surface, no depth -- sketch comedy. While he was peerless in those sketches, this didn't work well on screen; he was at his best when his characters were flamboyant (as in "JFK"), at his worst when he had to be the central character, since he so easily became maudlin.
But not so here. For once, his broad, chuckling performance and the role are a perfect match, and when he has to be serious, you have the sense that it's the character becoming serious, not John Candy pretending to be serious. It helps that his character, Del Griffith, is a traveling salesman; the suggestion of pretense is entirely appropriate. Only rarely does Hughes require Del to be a clueless clown; the rest of the time, the comedy comes out of his character, not the situations. "The last thing I want to be," declares Del, "is an annoying blabbermouth." But of course, that's what he is, and he knows it.
Steve Martin is also fine in a fairly uncomplicated role. Neal Page is an ordinary guy, a little stuffy, reasonably well off, but anything but colorful. Martin is allowed to let fly with a couple of his patented rages, though. Page, though, is not always presented as the hapless victim of Del's ineptitudes; some of their problems arise from his refusal to take much responsibility for what happens to them. Furthermore, when Del describes him as a tight ass, we -- and Neal -- realize that's exactly what he is, and this brings out the worst in Del, though unwillingly. You have to wonder if Del would have been such a disaster if he hadn't met Neal.
They're trying to get to Chicago (from New York) by Thanksgiving. Even before Neal meets Del, Griffith has caused him problems; he's not happy when they end up as seatmates. He's even less happy when weather forces the plane to land in Wichita, and that one catastrophic circumstance after another forces him to continue to team up with Del as they wend their way toward Chicago.
That's all there is to the story: this mismatched pair having to work together to get to Chicago, but it's pretty funny most of the way. The ending is sentimental and contrived, but it works because for once Hughes doesn't push it too far. (See "Uncle Buck" for an example of what can happen when he does.) This is a long way from a comedy classic, but it and "The Breakfast Club" are Hughes' two best movies.
It was reasonably successful, too, which makes it even stranger than Paramount has released this DVD without any extras. Yes, they've provided a clean letterboxed print, even enhanced for 16X9. But where is a commentary track by Hughes or Martin? Where is even the making-of short that almost certainly was filmed at the time? The disc lacks even a trailer, the bare-minimum extra these days. No one even points out the little cameos by people like Michael McKean, Kevin Bacon, Edie McClurg and Ben Stein.
Still, the print is good, and the sound robust and well-mixed. There's an excellent song score and some scant original music by Ira Newborn.
'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' is slick, facile and obvious, and borders on the sentimental, though it never quite topples over. Hughes sets up a success/disaster, success/disaster formula and follows it slavishly all the way through the movie without any variations. This makes the movie repetitious -- but it also keeps it pretty funny all the way from New York to Chicago.