Planes, Trains & Automobiles
****/**** Image C+ Sound A Extras B+
starring Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Michael McKean
written and directed by John Hughes
by Bill Chambers It took thirty years and multiple viewings before I finally realized that John Hughes's Planes, Trains & Automobiles is about many things, but mostly it's about a trunk. A behemoth fit for a starlet taking a cruise to Skull Island, the trunk is the property of travelling salesman Del Griffith (John Candy), who peddles shower-curtain rings for American Light & Fixture.1 Indeed, it's his avatar. Stuffy ad exec Neal Page (Steve Martin) trips over it while racing special-guest-star Kevin Bacon for a New York City cab at rush hour. It's fate. Del will obliviously steal the taxi Neal does manage to flag down, but it's not until they wind up sitting across from each other in LaGuardia that Neal puts a face to the trunk, reinforcing his bias against the moustachioed stranger--a sort of benign Ignatius J. Reilly who, between his girth and his luggage and, arguably, his indifference to Neal's boundaries, is the textbook definition of a man-spreader. The trunk disappears for long stretches, though it has a habit of bobbing back up into the frame the second you've forgotten about it completely. It's uncanny that way.
First, however, Planes, Trains & Automobiles is about class. Neal wears his wealth on his sleeve--quite literally: his avatar, likewise the first thing we see of him, is a wristwatch that GEARPATROL.COM tells me is a Movado Sapphire, worth $1,195.2 Later, he'll desperately pawn it for a cheap motel room. Del will try the same trick, but his Casio watch--worth $18, again according to GEAR PATROL--doesn't cut it. Neal gets stuck with Del in the air when he's assigned a coach seat despite his first-class ticket. Disposable income seems to spool out of him, even after he and Del are both robbed--Neal of $700, Del of $263. Most of the time, the wage gap between them isn't broadcast so brazenly. Rather, it's there in the snobs-vs.-slobs shorthand of Neal treating objects fussily because he's used to things having value and Del irreverently because he isn't. And the movie doesn't pretend that money would make Del's troubles, such as they are, go away, any more than it alleviates Neal's difficulty getting home for Thanksgiving. Their caste differences boil down to Neal overinflating the urgency and gravity of his predicament, which is that his Norman Rockwell family might have to eat dinner without him. He has that one-percenter tunnel vision, causing him to miss Del's existential cry for help until almost the bitter end. What Neal learns from Del's trunk causing him to do a face-plant in the street is the same lesson the fat cats in government are learning this year: ignore the common man at your peril.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles is something of a juggling act: Del is obnoxious enough that Neal's exasperation isn't petty or contrived, but not so obnoxious that there is any satisfaction in Neal hurting Del's feelings in the film's signature scene, the fight during their first night together, when Neal leaps from the bed they're sharing at the Braidwood Inn because Del keeps clearing his sinuses. The thrust of Neal's tantrum is that he's sick of Del's contempt for silence; for the first time here, Martin summons all his gangly comic energy to mimic the pullstring machinations of a Chatty Kathy doll, and the effect is vicious rather than droll. Del humbles him with his famous "I like me, my wife likes me" monologue (Candy breaks your heart), but it'd be an exaggeration to say that Neal's a changed man thereafter. His empathy is harder-earned than that, and the first sign of it is when he spots Del lugging his trunk across a field after their train breaks down and catches up to help him, despite having finally attained a measure of peace and quiet.
Neal and Del are the archetypal odd couple, adjusted for '80s biases. The slovenly, beer-swilling one acquired an underdog sheen that made him lovable, while the fastidious one gained cultural capital from his elitism. A cozy caricature of materialist values in the age of Reagan, Neal has definitely lost some of his Alex P. Keaton lustre over time (not unlike the genuine article). Logging a recent viewing of Cocoon at Letterboxd, cultural theorist (Dr.) Dan Hassler-Forest wrote that it was "[i]nteresting to re-watch this fondly remembered movie at a time when it's hard to see those 'sweet' old folks as anything but destructive Fox News viewers and Trump voters," and watching Planes, Trains & Automobiles in 2017, I similarly felt a pang of worry that Neal goes on to vote for Trump in twenty-nine years. (I worry that Hughes, a staunch Republican, would have, too.) Eighties cinema is littered with white male protagonists whose politics you wouldn't want to think too carefully about now. Sneering at Del from beneath the brim of a $500 fedora (thanks, GEAR PATROL!), Neal might be unpalatable today but for Martin's eternal hipness, which transcends any character he's playing.
Neal also has the good fortune to be a stand-in for Hughes, a former ad man himself, just as Del is a cookie-cutter version of Hughes's father, John Hughes Sr., a travelling salesman who moved his family around the country and up and down the economic ladder (instilling in Junior the class-consciousness that distinguishes much of his work). The sincerity of Neal's low-key spiritual awakening is never in doubt. Hughes came to prominence with a pair of screenplays inspired by life experiences (National Lampoon's Vacation and Mr. Mom), but a trio of films he directed and/or wrote between 1987 and 1988 (Some Kind of Wonderful, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and She's Having a Baby) may be his most personally revealing. According to Kirk Honeycutt's John Hughes: A Life in Film, Hughes Sr. had his own creative ambitions but was too self-consciously working-class to act on them, shedding light on Some Kind of Wonderful's conflict between a tormented artist and his pragmatic father. She's Having a Baby is, of course, a roman à clef about Hughes's newlywed years, when he was a humble copywriter gearing up to start a family. And Planes, Trains & Automobiles, the apex of this trilogy, was inspired by Hughes's frequent commutes from New York to Chicago during his advertising days (when he moonlighted at NATIONAL LAMPOON) and one particularly hellish one that lasted five days. But I think there's a richer vein of autobiography running through the picture in how Neal and Del's relationship is mostly bickering and compromise, and yet Del is welcomed into Neal's home for Thanksgiving. That's not friendship--that's family.
On that note, there's a scene where Neal leaves Del to sleep outside in their smouldering husk of a rental while he hoards a motel room, as punishment for torching their car and leaving his credit card to cook in the glove compartment. Instead of bristling at Neal's lack of mercy, he laments that he's really blown it this time in a monologue directed at his late wife. Del's self-flagellation indeed suggests he loves Neal unconditionally, like a father--but as much as this proves a point (and as moving as Candy's delivery is), I think it's a rare misstep for the film, not only dampening the impact of Neal's proto-Keyser Söze epiphany that Del's a widower but also breaking P.O.V. à la Sport dancing with Iris in Taxi Driver. Planes, Trains & Automobiles was the first time Hughes had really attempted something like a first-person narrative outside his NATIONAL LAMPOON stories; even in star vehicles like Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the perspective is omniscient--we always have key information the heroes don't. Here, for the most part, we know only what Neal knows. When Neal and Del separate, not toggling from one character to the other helps throw Del's resourcefulness into sharp relief, since Neal is shown struggling on his own in elaborate detail. (His forbidding trek across a runway to a car-rental agency unfolds practically in real-time.) Consequently, the film is less about Neal as saviour of the common man than it is about a yin meeting his yang.
There are a couple of notable exceptions to this subjectivity. One is when Neal's dozing in the passenger's seat while Del's at the wheel and Del gets tangled up in his coat, causing a chain reaction that will eventually set their car ablaze. Another is the burglarization of the pair's room at the Braidwood, for which Neal is again asleep. Sleeping is dangerous in John Hughes movies--the plot of Home Alone hinges on the power knocking out an alarm clock that's supposed to wake the parents. Hughes was a notorious night owl; the question when someone dies relatively young but having accomplished lots, as Hughes did, is whether forgoing sleep to get more done was a wise idea or not. I don't know how much the subjective storytelling in Planes, Trains & Automobiles reflects Hughes's identification with Neal, but his auteur idiosyncrasies are all over the film, from this distrust of slumber to the short-spanning narrative (Tuesday-Thursday); from the eclectic yet cohesive soundtrack (Ira Newborn's score alone incorporates blues harp, Vangelis-style synths, and an insanely catchy computerized riff on "When the Saints Go Marching In") to the closing freeze-frame; from the devastation of an automobile to the Leone-style close-ups during Martin's opening showdown with Bacon. (When Hughes samples from pop-culture, it's a tonal cue (e.g., the use of the "Dragnet" and "Twilight Zone" themes in Sixteen Candles), not a play on what's being referenced.) And of course there are the surreal beats, which, owing to the picture's focus on Neal, feel more anchored in the realm of expressionism than usual, and pull us deeper into the emotional reality of the character. (See: Del briefly turning into the Devil when Neal realizes they're driving against the traffic on a highway.) My favourite of these is when Neal recognizes Del's face at the airport: Instead of flashing back to Del's surprised reaction in the back of the cab, Hughes recreates the moment inside the airport, complete with the door to the taxi! It's difficult to imagine any of the filmmakers currently working in Hughes's shadow going this extra mile, let alone being so inspired or audacious in the first place.3
Shockingly, Hughes's methodology was not much different from that of Judd Apatow (his "collaborator" on Drillbit Taylor), whose films are comparatively unruly. Planes, Trains & Automobiles went into production with a long-for-a-comedy 145-page4 script--Martin famously asked Hughes what he was going to cut from it before shooting started, and was met with bafflement--that only became wordier as Hughes encouraged his quick-witted co-stars to improvise additional dialogue. Apatow's extended editions are known for their gratuitous length but then so are his theatrical cuts, and while there exists, on some VHS tape in some Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse, no doubt, a version of Planes, Trains & Automobiles with a running time that would humble David Lean (ditto The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off), the theatrical release--no less a "director's cut" at a mere 92 minutes, as Hughes was his own producer by this point--demonstrates ruthless craftsmanship. Free of scar tissue, Paul Hirsch's typically masterful editing has an inevitable-feeling economy and rhythmic flow. Having read the shooting script, I have an inkling of what the longer cut contains and how it plays. Neal and Del take jobs at a loading dock to pay for the train tickets that actually get them home, for example--the type of fuss that jettisons itself when a film starts barrelling towards the conclusion.
More telling elisions are character-based. In Hughes's screenplay, Neal is desperate to get home largely because he has royally fucked-up in his marriage, somehow, and needs to prove to his wife (Laila Robins) that he can keep a promise. For his part, Del confesses to a certain pathological drive around the holidays in a climactic monologue that calls for him to cry by the end of it:
I didn't have much family. A brother in Montana, some cousins. Marie's folks died back-to-back the year after we married. They were pretty old. She was a late child. We didn't get the chance to have kids. She wanted three. Two boys and a girl. I number about 300 motels as my home. I sort of attach myself to people from time to time. Like with you. Especially around the holidays. I can take it in March, July, October. I don't mind it. But it gets hard about this time of year. I've never had much of a chance to be a family man but it gets really hard. And you know what it is? I don't get to give any of myself to anybody. It's not the getting I miss, it's the giving. I sat on that plane with you and I thought about you heading home to be with your people. And Tuesday night when you were in the shower and I looked at the pictures of your kids, man, I thought you gotta be the luckiest man on Earth to go home and put those little guys on your knee and hug 'em and kiss 'em. I'm thirty nine years old and I never had that and I never will. I'm just sorry about this. I just kinda lost control this time. Every year since Marie's been gone, I've gotten closer and closer to losing it. Usually I head for a church. I can feel like I'm part of something when I'm in a church. This time...I guess I didn't get to the church fast enough. I just couldn't let go.
In Honeycutt's book, Martin recalls how powerful it was to witness Candy come into his own while performing this tearful breakdown and laments that it never saw the light of day. I will admit that after a few viewings, questions about Del's endgame become nettling, and this speech goes some way towards answering them. Still, I think Hughes probably realized that in their grimness and specificity--nobody really needs a reason to want to go home, let alone for Thanksgiving--these backstories were having the opposite of their desired effect in distancing the characters from archetype (and in turn distancing viewers from the characters). Hughes had a notoriously fragile ego except, oddly, when it came to randos: He eagerly test-screened his films and amended them accordingly. As Tom Jacobson, his producer on Ferris Bueller's Day Off through National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, told Honeycutt: "[Hughes] was making movies for an audience. He wanted them to relate to his intentions." There's a very funny moment in Planes, Trains & Automobiles that could be said to function as an apologia for Hughes's crowd-pleasing instincts, where Neal attempts to lead a bus in a sing-along of the Oscar-winning "Three Coins in the Fountain" and Del, noting the blank-eyed stares of their fellow travellers, quickly and triumphantly course corrects with the first few bars of the considerably less obscure "The Flintstones." Hughes isn't impugning anybody's taste here, he's saying that art--even Academy-anointed art--has little social purpose if nobody recognizes (themselves in) it.
Something else rendered the above-quoted monologue superfluous. You guessed it: the trunk. It says everything there is to say, far more pithily. The script makes a bigger mystery of its contents--before departing the train station for Neal's house, Del lifts its lid it to reveal "the remnants of [his] domestic life," as prelude to spilling his guts. The movie doesn't give it this Kiss Me Deadly/Pulp Fiction treatment, and in fact seems to confirm it's full of shower-curtain rings earlier on, when he hawks his wares at a bus station for a quick infusion of cash. He pitches the big plastic hoops as jewellery (Walter Cronkite moon rings, special earrings handcrafted for the Grand Wizard of China (LOL)), which is amusingly plausible for 1987, though it also points to their symbolic elasticity within the story; it's a strategically-chosen prop. Circles, running in circles, no end, no beginning... Nothing less than the cyclical nature of depression is contained in Del's trunk. That's why it weighs so much, even though Del can convincingly claim to one customer that the rings are filled with helium. Planes, Trains & Automobiles is the one John Hughes movie that makes everybody sob like a baby, and for me the waterworks start with that devastating jump-cut from Neal at the train station to Neal and Del carrying Del's trunk up the path to Neal's house. There's no preamble this time, this is just what you do for friends--for family. You share the burden of their baggage.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
To commemorate the 30th (gulp!) anniversary of Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Paramount has repackaged their 2012 Blu-ray release with a spurious new Christmas-themed slipcover that's as kitschy as it is misleading. The only advantage this reissue has is that it includes DVD and digital copies of the film, a premium that wasn't in vogue back in '12. It's a shame the picture wasn't treated to a fresh digital scan--and, frankly, the master looks even older than its purported age. Presented at the HD-native aspect ratio of 1.78:1, the 1080p transfer betrays a combination of noise-reduction and edge-enhancement, resulting in a deceptively sharp image that wants for fine detail outside of extreme close-ups. Grain--what little remains--is frozen in place in static shots and tends to turn chalky when the camera's in motion, while dynamic range exhibits a steep drop-off to black. (A nighttime shot of an airplane parking at the 7:09 mark would be barely comprehensible but for the twinkling lights of the city and terminal bouncing off the plane's nose.) Saturation is vivid, animating the film's grey/blue palette, but the colours lack depth, especially flesh tones--I doubt that Martin and Candy were identical shades of orange-pink in real life, as they are here. I can imagine having overlooked these flaws at the dawn of the format, but times have changed and if this movie warrants birthday honours, surely it deserves to put its best foot forward. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track has aged considerably better, sounding more or less like a contemporary comedy. Dialogue is crisp and full while both the music and effects are gratifyingly punchy for an '80s movie.
Extras are a curious collection of archival footage and interviews with people tenuously connected to Planes, Trains & Automobiles by their association with John Hughes. "John Hughes: The Voice of a Generation," the first segment of the two-part "John Hughes: Life Moves Pretty Fast" (54 mins. in toto, HD), opens with a reminiscence from the man himself circa 1987 in which he recalls growing up in a home that frowned upon going to the cinema--he claims he only ever saw movies as a child at birthday parties. In new-ish talking-heads, director Howard Deutch, actors Matthew Broderick, Jon Cryer, Lea Thompson, and Alan Ruck, producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Matty Simmons (founder of NATIONAL LAMPOON), and costume designer Marilyn Vance each reflect on their collaboration(s) with the mercurial Hughes and that ineffable John Hughes touch. Woven throughout are pearls of wisdom from Hughes, who describes his writing process as simultaneously transcribing and steering the movie unspooling slowly in his head and talks about the value of reading your script out loud. ("You learn a lot about your dialogue when you read it out loud. Because it's built for the ear... I think if a lot of people did that the quality of dialogue would probably improve." Preach!) The second half, "Heartbreak and Triumph: The Legacy of John Hughes," is more of the same, with a greater emphasis on casting and Hughes's gift for tailoring a character to an actor's sensibility. Unfortunately, there's a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking of Hughes's creative partnership with Molly Ringwald that feels unseemly with neither party present to defend themselves. The whole documentary is predictably larded with film clips but only from those Hughes productions distributed by Paramount, i.e., Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, and She's Having a Baby. (Plus Planes, Trains & Automobiles, obviously.)
"A Tribute to John Candy" (3 mins.) is an older featurette wherein Planes, Trains & Automobiles cast members Michael McKean and Edie McClurg and casting directors Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins reflect on the genius and untapped promise of a "nice, nice man." It's sweet if modest to a fault. Clearly produced in tandem, "John Hughes for Adults" (4 mins.) adds the film's executive producer, Neil Machlis. Both of these pieces excerpt liberally from a press conference for Planes, Trains & Automobiles that took place on the Paramount lot in 1987, a 16-minute distillation of which--titled "Getting There is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains and Automobiles"--surfaces on this disc. Flanked by an acerbic Hughes and a shy Candy (who's in the bathroom when he's called to the stage), Martin recognizes he must assume the role of showman and does a commendable job. We learn that he said "yes" to the film on the basis of two scenes--the rental-car swear-a-thon and Del adjusting the car seat--and, incidentally, that it took him two-and-a-half years to write Roxanne. This sparks a discussion of Hughes's fabled ability to crank out screenplays in a matter of days (three, in the case of Planes, Trains & Automobiles), prompting Hughes to clarify that revisions are another matter altogether, and that he writes fast because he refuses to get bogged down in description. McKean, et al resurface in bridging segments that now play like interruptions. Lastly, a lengthy deleted scene (3 mins., HD)--the only one, alas--finds Del regaling Neal with disgusting stories of food preparation over their in-flight meal until Neal loses his appetite for reheated lasagna. It's hilarious and entirely worthy of the finished film, but maybe it slowed things down in context. For what it's worth, this sequence features a marginally stronger transfer than the movie proper, with a pleasingly natural grain structure.
2 Update (11/21/18): Timepiece aficionado Luke McKenzie informed me at the beginning of 2018 that GEAR PATROL actually got it wrong: Neal's watch is a Piaget Polo 8673, which would currently set you back about $3500--used.
3 In the midst of Neal and Del's vehicular brush with death, Hughes cuts to single shots of the pair as skeletons--complete with Martin- and Candy-style hairpieces--that last 10 frames each, or less than half-a-second apiece. When I think about the amount of effort that went into this sight gag, from building the puppets to matching the lighting, all to reward only the most attentive viewers with a Coke-spewing-out-the-nose laugh, I become more incensed by the sheer laziness of something like this year's The House. Comedy filmmaking is in dire straits.
4 As a rule of thumb, one page equals one minute of screentime.