Sunday, August 9, 2009

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Sadly, the director John Hughes died the other day. Best known as the 1980s’ leading auteur of teenage angst, he also made another movie about adults in that decade some people believe was his best. That film – Planes, Trains and Automobiles - is barely mentioned in an appreciation of Hughes by the chief NY Times film critic A.O. Scott in the August 8th issue of the Times, yet is the very film Lawrence Downes wants to pay tribute to in an almost apologetically positive editorial in the same issue. What neither of them mentions is that Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the only Hughes’ film that one of America’s leading movie critics, Roger Ebert, has included in his quite fine Great Movies volumes. What does that film do that Roger likes so much and why is it being discussed in a blog about New York City?

Dispensing with the second question first, Planes opens in Manhattan, two days before Thanksgiving, and focuses on two men who are stranded there, desperate to get to their Chicago homes to enjoy a holiday dinner with their families. They couldn’t care less about Manhattan. All they want to do is find a way to get out of it so that they can make their way home.

The two men, a hard driving advertising executive played by Steve Martin and a loquacious traveling salesman, played by John Candy, who agreeably promotes the best shower-curtain rings in the world, are the whole show. Of course, the characters they brilliantly inhabit are entirely Hughes’ creations, but without the pitch-perfect performances of the stars, the film cannot work. Predictably, the two characters are studies in contrasts. Neal is all business, doesn’t talk much, thinks he can maintain control with his influence and his credit cards. He just wants to return to the peace and quiet of his Chicago home. Del revels in companionship, regardless of the circumstances. Being stranded with a stranger, however unresponsive, gives him a new person to talk to, someone to whom he can tell his silly jokes and relate his long-winded stories. But as Ebert points out in his review, Del is also an empathetic man who genuinely cares about Neal’s plight. He is also sensitive and easily hurt. When Neal explodes with frustration in the Wichita, Kansas hotel room they are forced to share together and tells Del that he would rather be trapped in an insurance seminar than listen to another of his insipid jokes or stories, Del is crushed, and as Ebert notes, later recalls how his beloved late wife “once told him he was too eager to please and shouldn’t try so hard.”

This scene becomes the turning point in their relationship and the one that Ebert singles out for special notice. As Del sits glumly, feeling rejected for being too eager to please and trying too hard to be accepted, it is not only Del who recognizes his folly, but Neal, too, who sees his life in a new way. Like Del, Neal, also “is a lonely soul, and too well organized to know it.” He has lived his life in a kind of cocoon of privilege, isolated from the ordinary, happy-go-lucky existence of people like Del. He develops a new appreciation for the Dels of the world, and in the process becomes a little fonder of himself as well. “Strange, how much poignancy creeps into this comedy,” Ebert concludes, “which only becomes stronger while we’re laughing.”

I haven’t seen Planes, Trains and Automobiles for a long time, but I doubt very much I would call it great. Still, I wanted to share these reactions, partly because I respect Ebert so much as one of our most lucid and perceptive writers on film, and partly because I do think there is something universal about this film that can be easily overlooked as we get caught up in the chaotic silliness of it all. I never want to underestimate the entertainment value of films, but for me the best ones also offer us a glimpse of another version of ourselves that can sometimes be not only illuminating, but, in rare cases, change us a little, too.

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