Revisiting . . . Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

Planes

VHS Revival revisits one of cinema’s most fondly remembered comedy duos.


There is a memorable scene in The Sopranos in which Tony vents his frustrations about ‘The Happy Wanderer’.

Tony hates those people, the kind who refuse to see the world in a cynical light and instead walk around whistling with a clear conscience and a stupid smile on their face. John Candy’s irrepressible Del Griffith – the unlikely hero of John Hughes’ greatest movie – is the personification of ‘The Happy Wanderer’, a man who accepts the negativity of modern day America with impervious good cheer. Del is kind, helpful and sincere. With him, what you see is what you get.

Steve’s Martin’s Neal Page also hates those people, the kind whose every word comes straight out of the good citizen manual. Worlds apart from the cheery, blue-collar Griffith, he works in advertising in the big city and resents having to spend time away from his family. He sits in the boardroom for hours on end, and his worse fear lies in becoming just another cardboard drone. Page relies on his acerbic wit to get him through the days. He believes that his ability to criticize insulates him from becoming as trite and predictable as someone like Griffith, but in the end the two of them have much in common. They simply have different ways of coping.

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It is these differences and similarities which make Del and Neal such a wonderful comedy duo, the kind who can slip into the tried-and-tested odd couple formula and still make it interesting. As usual, John Hughes, a man renown for understanding his cast and utilizing their real life strengths and weaknesses, is essential in allowing Martin and Candy to reach their full potential. A known depressive before a tragically premature death at 44, Candy was a compulsive personality who never felt he could live up to the expectation of his fans. Hughes understood this, and he channels Candy’s insecurities to help the actor produce the most heartwarming performance of his career.

Del – You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you… but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. Well, you think what you want about me; I’m not changing. I like… I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.

Del is one of those unfortunate people who cannot help but annoy those around him. He is fine in small doses – a fact that his many superficial relationships as a travelling curtain ring salesman can attest to – but beyond those niceties he is a fellow who will wear you down to a nub with his plethora of bad habits and ceaseless anecdotes. Griffith is aware of his own grating nature, and compensates by doing everything humanly possible to remain decent, but when it comes to a debilitating klutz like Del, for most people being decent just isn’t enough.

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Neal’s nightmare begins when Griffith accidentally steals his cab as he races to the airport in order to make it home to his family in time for Thanksgiving. You get the sense that Neal fears the worst even before he crosses paths with his future nemesis. He hates the world and it hates him, and in reality he makes his own bad luck. When Neal makes his flight by the skin of his teeth and is relegated from first class, it is Griffith he finds himself sitting next to, and he soon realises that a stolen cab was the least of his worries as he stares at the flight companion from hell. The only thing keeping a lid on his frustrations as Griffith airs his feet and falls asleep on his shoulder is the fact that their relationship will be fleeting.

Of course, their relationship is anything but. In fact, it is long and excruciating, a constant pulling apart and coming together as if the two of them were bound by some sadistic fate. Every time Del offers his assistance, Neal has no choice but to accept, and there is always a price to pay. Before the movie is twenty minutes old Neal has crumbled, seething under a mountain of pet peeves and annoyances and bursting into an unfortunate tirade that leaves his roommate on the verge of tears. Not only is Del a slob, he attracts misfortune like a lightning rod, and he always seems to duck each bolt at the last moment, leaving his reluctant companion frying in his wake. By the time the two of them say their first of many false goodbyes, Neal can hardly bare to look at him.

Griffith is the kind of loner very few of us can relate to, a tragic figure who doesn’t mean to isolate himself, but who consistently does so, in spite of his best efforts to the contrary. Aware of his agonizing flaws, he still fails to understand how Neal can be so upset with him, because even if he is at fault for something, his intentions are never less than wholesome and pragmatic. Even if he almost kills you by driving along the highway in the wrong direction, his heart is in the right place, and that should be enough for anyone. 

Del Planes

Neal, on the other hand, is somebody almost all of us can relate to. He works hard in a job he resents, smiling through his teeth as his boss does everything in his power to waste his time, and the world goes and kicks him in the balls anyway. All he wants to do is return home to his wife and kids and every facet of the world turns against him. First his flight has to make an emergency landing, then he can’t get a room, his wallet is stolen, and when his ragged frame stumbles towards the car rental booth to inform the painted smile that the vehicle he hired is not where it is supposed to be, she replies to his infamous F-bomb tirade with the kind of breezy cynicism his attitude deserves. We laugh with Neal because he represents all of our worst urges – the kind we find ourselves calling upon with an ever increasing regularity – but we never resent Del for his ceaseless hindrance, a testament to the unlikely charm of the Griffith character and the actor who plays him.

Car Rental Agent – How may I help you?

Neal – You can start by wiping that fucking dumb-ass smile off your rosy, fucking cheeks! And you can give me a fucking automobile: a fucking Datsun, a fucking Toyota, a fucking Mustang, a fucking Buick! Four fucking wheels and a seat!

Car Rental Agent – I really don’t care for the way you’re speaking to me.

Neal – And I really don’t care for the way your company left me in the middle of fucking nowhere with fucking keys to a fucking car that isn’t fucking there. And I really didn’t care to fucking walk, down a fucking highway, and across a fucking runway to get back here to have you smile in my fucking face. I want a fucking car RIGHT FUCKING NOW!

There are so many memorable scenes in Planes, Trains and Automobiles that the joke never wears thin. The comedy is largely one-dimensional, the odd couple paradigm as conventional as they come, but the writing and execution are so flawless, Hughes’ understanding of the human condition so sharp, that we empathise with these characters on the most fundamental level, and in spite of its almost pantomime delineations, our two characters slip from hero to villain and back again so seamlessly that they become almost interchangeable, and as a consequence very rounded and real.

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The comedy comes thick and fast – the awkward scene in which Del and Neal share a late night snuggle, the moment their rented car goes up in flames and Neal’s vengeful laughter turns to horror when he realises it was leased using his credit card – but the movie truly flourishes during moments of great poignancy, especially the movie’s famous twist, one so emotive and powerful in its ability to alter our perceptions that Neal experiences something of an emotional renaissance, and what we are left with is the kind of unlikely bond that was forged against unimaginable odds, and as a result will almost certainly last forever.

Neal – [Comes back to Chicago rail station to find Del sitting alone] Del, what are you doing here? You said you were going home, what are you doing here?

Del – I uh… I don’t have a home. Marie’s been dead for eight years.

Del and Neal’s reluctant road trip features the kind of gross misfortunes that make laughter a necessity. Neal may depend on wit to shield him from life’s undesirable qualities, but when the personification of all his fears lands in his lap and won’t let go, his cynicism turns to anger, but then to acceptance and the realisation that these incidents may one day be looked upon as the good times, as those occasions when you had no other option than to just let go. After all, in one respect he is the luckiest man alive. The things that truly matter are waiting for him back home.

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Del, he no longer has a home, and the very real tragedy that life can spring upon us has given him the kind of perspective that most are unable to acquire until it is much too late. His unfortunate habits and proclivity for being in the wrong place at the wrong time are trivial when viewed as part of the bigger picture, but more acute when given the proper attention, a fact that slowly dawns upon his mismatched buddy along with the realisation that Del is ‘The Happy Wanderer’ only in essence, and that his persistence is less an accident waiting to happen, more a subconscious product of desperation and loneliness.

Cedric Smarts


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