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Why We're Thankful For 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles'

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Wed, Nov 26, 2008 at 6:00 AM

click to enlarge 163031__planes_l.jpg

The holiday season is plentiful - if not bursting - with Christmas

films, most of which are heaped upon us in early succession just like

everything else tinsel and mistletoe. And you can't say there isn't variety to account for differing tastes: It's A Wonderful Life for your traditionalists; A Christmas

Story for your Gen X'ers, Home Alone for Gen Y; Lethal Weapon and Die Hard for those

who want a little bang with their ho-ho-ho. (Of course they count, they take place at

Christmas!)  It's fair to say, however,

that we still don't have a solid case for a traditional classic for

Thanksgiving...  or do we?  There is one film

which remains a staunch favorite particularly among fans, both for its

big laughs as well as its immense heart, which by all rights ought to be crowned the pinnacle of Thanksgiving movie magic: we never fail to find ourselves thankful for

Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

In 1987, John Hughes was still in the midst of branching out

from his stable of rightfully beloved teen films but hadn't yet made a solid

mark; his first attempt at aiming beyond the high-school set, the Kevin Bacon

marriage-woes yarn She's Having A Baby, was in the can but wouldn't see the

light of day until the following year.  In the meantime, the director landed two of our greatest comic performers - well, one at least, the Great White North can lay claim to the other - to star in a spirited salute to the odd couples of comedies past.  Steve Martin's tightly-wound marketing exec Neal Page, grounded hundreds of miles from home thanks to a snowstorm and

desperate to get back in time for Thanksgiving, has his perfectly regimented

commuter's agenda completely upended by his encounter with crass, slobby,

yet irrepressibly cheerful shower curtain-ring salesman Del Griffith, writ large and

lovable by the late John Candy. 

Disasters aplenty ensue, amongst them a veritable cornucopia of hilarity

and heartbreak... here are some of the highlights:

The ever-present Hughesverse players:  Though never precisely stating that all of

his films take place in the same universe (outside of the fact that many of his

films center the fictitious Chicago suburb of Shermer, Illinois), seeing the

same old trusty faces turn up gives Hughes' films a certain warmth and familiarity,

and PT&A is no different.  On his way

out of New York, Neal pow-wows with his colleague portrayed by Lyman Ward, who

also played Ferris Bueller's father. (Who perhaps through no coincidence was

also an ad-man.)  In trying to get to

JFK, he sprints for the a cab at rush hour against the aforementioned Mr.

Bacon, who probably isn't playing his same character from She's Having A Baby...

but he could be!  And they keep turning

up... perpetual drone-machine Ben Stein as an airline representative, and the

ever-bubbly Edie McClurg as a rental car agent who delivers Martin the decisive

blow at the crisis-point of his mental breakdown.  Warning, kids... very strong language:

UPDATE: Our original version of this clip was pulled from

YouTube shortly after press time; apparently, the one thing Paramount

isn't thankful for this holiday is free publicity. Boooo.  So here's an

inferior version gacked off of someone's TV... watch it while you can!:


The eternal horrors of the holiday commute: Well before the

real adventure begins, Hughes sets the stage for Neal Page's test of mettle in

that setting that so many of us can relate to at  Thanksgiving, slammed shoulder to shoulder in

coach with strangers you can't possibly get away from for a few minutes of

precious down-time as you try to get to your destination. After having lost his

last-ditch cab to Del Griffith back in the Big Apple, he's stuck next to him on the plane: Del's non-stop yakking and smelly socks on one side, and an old-timer

with an powerful snore on the other. (In a rare case of broadcast

versions of a film featuring material not seen in theaters, the television edit

of PT&A includes an additional bit with Del methodically listing all the

different alternate meals he's fond of ordering on various airlines; Neal's

frustration is deeply, hilariously palpable throughout.)

Local color: All shapes, all sizes sizes, all sorts of

uproarious ticks: It would be one thing if Neal only had to put up with Del along his trek back to the Windy City.  Of course, the two can't get where they're

going alone unless they walk, and that could very well take them past New Year's Day.  Along the way they hook up with or

run afoul of numerous characters both well-meaning (the Midwestern greaseball

cabbie in the flashy boat who is determined to show off beautiful downtown Wichita because "ain't

nothin' to see on the interstate but interstate".. never mind that it's 3 a.m.) and not to be trifled with (the gruff taxi stand guy in St.

Louis who obliges Neal's end-of-his-tether sarcasm with a swift left hook and

yank to the groin. Ouch.)  None of them

hold a candle, however, to Owen, the pig farmer who gives them a lift to the

train depot played with unfettered hillbilly relish by the great Dylan Baker.  Behold the greatest unexplained character tick

of all time - snnnnnnort!: 


Times are tough, but the music is fantastic: Though not as

deeply entrenched in the obscure New Wave acts of the day as his earlier films,

Hughes's soundtrack for PT&A is still shot through with some killer beats,

making it that much hipper for its efforts; the premiere track is doubtlessly

the Silicon Teens plucky synth cover of "Red River

Rock," providing a solid pop-culture reference point for that faux-group's brief

foray into the 80's scene. (It was actually a side project of Mute Records

impresario Daniel Miller; you can listen to the song in its entirety on

MySpace.)  As always, Hughes also

balances the current sounds with canny use of some genuine classics, most

memorably a cover of Patsy Cline's "Back in Baby's Arms" which accompanies that

tender moment between Del and Neal when they're forced to share a bed.  ("Why are you holding my hand?"... "Where's you're

other hand?"..."Between two pillows"...."Those aren't pillows!")

Five words: Steve Martin and John Candy:  There is absolutely no underestimating two

great talents at their peak, and it's on both of these men's shoulders to bring

their A-game and lift the already great material to a level of true holiday

classic.  They deliver in spades; as Neal

Page, Martin abandons all of the buffoonery that made him famous and perfectly

embodies the humorless neatnik who loses sight of his soft side, ironically

while he's trying so fervently to get back to that which matters most...his

wife and kids.  He's not a bad guy, but while

the battle to get back home takes on epic proportions, he spends most of his

energy bitching and moaning without ever really opening his eyes to the

essential goodness in other people... particularly Del, who for all his

boorishness is a genuinely kind soul who only wants to do right by his new

acquaintance, and knows his heart well enough to hold his head up high even

when he's being brought down low:

UPDATE #2: Yep, this one got pulled too.  Which is a real shame because there aren't any other clips of the heavy stuff on YouTube at the moment. So, somewhat reluctantly, we give you the "you're going the wrong way!" clip instead. Not too reluctantly, though, because that dashboard gag is still a corker:


It's a perfect marriage of performer and role; no matter how

much he gets under your skin, at the end it's impossible not to like the guy. And

it's in the film's final reveal that all the pieces fall into place - SPOILER

ALERT! - as despite how he often speaks fondly of his wife back home, it's only

when they finally make it back to Chicago that Del reveals to Neal that his beloved

Marie is long dead and he has nowhere to go. 

Naturally, having regained his appreciation for what a lucky son of a bitch

he really is, Neal brings him home for Thanksgiving dinner with his family;

when the Page family is reunited there are relief and smiles aplenty, yet the

film chooses to end on Candy's longing face as he watches a loving couple

embrace. It's a masterful performance at the center of a real American classic that

captures what Turkey Day is really all about - what gets us through life at the

toughest times, what makes us strive to be better people even when fate slings

every shade of shit in our direction and does its best to grind us down to a

frazzled nub.  And at times like these,

what else can we do if not count our blessings?  And laugh at ourselves.

Hard.

If you're not too busy watching college football or a bunch of big balloons, watch Planes Trains & Automobiles on Thanksgiving; if the football or balloon enthusiasts in your household win out, you can always catch it at the Arclight's 21 & Over screening on December 1.

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