Nov 27, 2000 (Updated Nov 28, 2000)
Review by bill_chambers
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Candy, Martin, Hughes
Cons:A bit didactic
Did the eighties breed a more idiosyncratic auteur than John Hughes? His pictures display an astonishing fluency in film language for someone with an abbreviated directing career largely defined by teen romps (Ferris Bueller's Day Off, etc.). His inimitable technique combines a brilliant editing sense and a wholly original pastiche of cartoon exaggerations, suburban melancholy, and abstract non-sequiturs, and he is deft with narrative in the tonal sense, effortlessly swapping laughter for tears--and, even more impressively, switching between modes of comedy. Randomly chosen passages from Planes, Trains & Automobiles, a film that is hilarious for the better part of ninety minutes (before turning--welcomely--sweet and pensive), would instantly prove this.
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As the title suggests, it begins with an airplane. Two days prior to Thanksgiving, ad exec Neal Page's plans for returning home to an adoring wife and children are cursed, perhaps, by a colleague's sing-songy insistence that Neal (a funny, convincingly priggish Steve Martin) will never make his evening flight out of New York. For starters, Neal's coveted cab is stolen during rush hour; then his Chicago-bound plane is delayed; then he meets the culprit behind his taxi theft, a travelling shower curtain ring salesman named Del Griffith (John Candy); then Neal's first-class ticket is bumped down to coach, where he is seated next to, you guessed it, Del, who annoys him to the core. Due to white-outs, Neal and Del touch down in Kansas, where they rent a motel room together and form an unintentionally intimate bond (made famous by the trailers), though not before Neal pulls the mother of all Felix Unger tantrums.
At first, Del is presented as a working-class grotesque, a hefty man of old-fashioned American values but little decorum: he sees no harm nor foul in removing his shoes and socks to give himself a foot massage in public or loudly clearing his throat of phlegm while Neal tries to sleep--in the same bed, no less. Hughes' weakness for such extreme characterizations made him a natural to adapt Cruella De Vil for the live-action remake of Disney's 101 Dalmatians a couple of years ago, and it is the foundation upon which 1985's The Breakfast Club was constructed. What separates Hughes' eighties screenplays from his nineties breadjobs for Uncle Walt is a point at which these broad types peel off their labels to reveal, if not flesh and blood, spirituality and self-awareness--unlike Del, or those high-schoolers stuck in Saturday detention, Hughes' Cruella De Vil never gets a soul to bear.
Del gains dimension and earns our respect in his reaction to Neal's initial outburst against him--if Del had responded with shame, we might've wound up unfairly pitying him, but instead, he collects his dignity and throws it back in Neal's face ("I like me. My wife likes me"), which levels the playing field a bit. As befits the John Hughes Experience, Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a bit didactic in that regard: the early part of the film is about Neal acclimating himself to Del and not the other way around only so Hughes can slap our wrists for identifying and sympathizing with the snob first. By the time fate has clearly adjoined them for a road trip proper, we are no longer strictly wearing Neal's shoes.
John Candy is ultimately responsible for Del's heart and soul, as well as much of Planes, Trains & Automobiles' amiability. Maybe it's Candy's generous belly laugh--at full throttle here--or the absence of malice in the very fibre of his being... Hughes, who directed the late comic actor in two films (this one and the undervalued Uncle Buck), shrewdly closed each of them with a frozen close-up of Candy's cherubic smile, allowing us to linger a moment extra on his warmth, the way we might rush towards a fire after it's been consigned to death in the hearth. All of humanity's potential for goodness is wrapped up in John Candy's heavyhearted face; the silver screen misses him terribly, and it thirstily awaits the return of Hughes the consummate filmmaker.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles is over a decade old now, and its age is somewhat apparent on Paramount's DVD version. The video transfer, letterboxed at 1.85:1 and enhanced for 16x9 televisions, is rather drab and grainy at times, and blacks are relatively weak. While the image is better defined than on my VHS copy, it exhibits many similar defects, leading me to wonder just how extensively the film was remastered for the digital medium. (In short, Bueller fares better on disc.) The newly mixed 5.1 Dolby audio, a definite improvement over the tape's barely mono surround sound, opens up Ira Newborn's clever synth score and adds kick to a hilarious car accident. No extras.
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