The Unhappy Wanderer: Planes, Trains and Automobiles and the True Spirit of Thanksgiving

Celebrating the true spirit of Thanksgiving with a comedy masterclass


There’s 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 burdens of modern-day life with impervious good cheer. A far cry from the denizens of America’s billion-footed beast, 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 citizens handbook. Worlds apart from the cheery, blue-collar Griffith, he works in the shark-infested waters of big city advertising and resents having to spend time away from his family. Page relies on sharp-toothed cynicism to get him through the days. In his mind, his keen eye for criticism 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.

It is these differences and similarities that make Del and Neal such a wonderful comedy duo, the kind who can slip into the tried-and-tested odd couple formula without ever descending into derivative territory. Hughes’ razor-sharp screenplay, tapping into the universal annoyances of a globalised world, gives our stars plenty to kick out at, but it’s our affection for two of comedy’s shining lights that make Planes, Trains and Automobiles such a timeless classic.

planes-trains-and-automobiles

Hughes’ most inspired move was to tap into the real-life personalities of the film’s stars. Essentially, the two actors play themselves, and the characters and relationships are much richer for it. 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. In reality, Martin was that neurotic, semi-patronising rebel with a killer streak, and Neal allows him to let rip unreservedly. He is heartless, cynical, utterly free from restraint, but we love him for it. He says the things we’re afraid to.

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!

As for Candy, he was the big, cuddly bundle of joy we all paid to see. He was also a known depressive before a tragically premature death at 44, a compulsive personality who never felt he could live up to fan expectation. Hughes understood this, and he channels Candy’s insecurities to help forge the most heartwarming performance of his career. The spotlight would cost Candy everything, his very public battle with obesity one of Hollywood’s cruellest tragedies, but in Trains, Planes and Automobiles Hughes captures the true essence of one of the industry’s finest talents, and the very real person living behind the laughter.

Del is the fictional manifestation of Candy’s most self-destructive insecurities, which is why we empathise with his character so strongly. He is one of those unfortunate souls who can’t help but annoy those around him. He’s 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 will wear you down to a barely visible nub with his plethora of bad habits and ceaseless anecdotes. Griffith 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.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles car

Neal’s nightmare begins when Griffith accidentally steals his cab as he races to make it home in time for Thanksgiving, a pure accident that sparks an unstoppable avalanche of misfortune. You get the sense that Neal fears the worst even before he crosses paths with his future nemesis. The world hates him and he hates it right back, but to some extent he makes his own luck. Cynicism has a habit of slapping you in the face it seems.

When Neal makes his flight by the skin of his teeth and is relegated to coach, it’s Griffith he winds up sitting next to, and he soon realises that a stolen cab is the least of his worries as he stares at the flight companion from hell, the kind of relentless pest who could crush even the most resolute sense of seasonal good cheer. The only thing keeping a lid on Neal’s frustrations as Griffith airs his stinky 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 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, squirming under a mountain of pet peeves and bursting into an unfortunate diatribe 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 say their first of many false goodbyes, Neal can hardly bear to look at him.

Del [in response to Neal’s rant]: 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.

Neal will discover that there’s more to his infuriating companion than meets the eye, but even before the film’s devastating revelation, we’re firmly in Del’s corner. Griffith is the kind of loner few of us can relate to, a tragic figure who isolates himself despite his best efforts. He’s aware of his flaws but still fails to understand how Neal could be so upset with him, because even if he is at fault for something his intentions are never less than honourable. Even if he almost kills you by driving along the highway in the wrong direction and setting fire to your rental car, his heart is in the right place, and that should be enough for anyone.

In reality, there is no place in 80s America for honest, good-hearted souls like Griffith. Countless Americans were crushed by Reagan’s globalised model as Wall Street decadence ran roughshod over small businesses, dismantling worker unions and making fools out of honest citizens who valued solidarity in the workplace. In an environment of self-improvement and personal advancement, of self-styled ‘Masters of the Universe’ and unbridled opulence, America was becoming less about industry, more about advertising bluster. The fact that Del is able to make a living based on his goodhearted nature tells you everything you need to know about his character.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles earrings

Neal, on the other hand, is very much an 80s man, a spiritually beleaguered product of America’s economic express train. He works hard in a job he resents, smiling through his teeth as fat-cat bosses who do everything in their power to waste his time, and the world goes and kicks him in the balls anyway. All he wants is to return home to his wife and kids, his tranquil island among the chaos, 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 for the car rental booth to inform the painted smile of his vehicle’s absence, 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 portrays him.

There are so many memorable scenes in Planes, Trains and Automobiles that the joke never wears thin. The odd couple paradigm is as conventional as they come, but the writing and execution are so flawless, the situations and personalities so endearing, you’re completely engaged from start to finish. Rather than delivering a series of comedy set-pieces just for laughs, Hughes precipitates a tumbling snowball of hard-earned pathos, and his understanding of the human condition has never been keener. As a kid, movies such as Weird Science and The Breakfast Club really spoke to me. Watching them as an adult, they smack of idealism, but the way those actors blossomed, the manner in which those characters interacted, there was something truly refreshing about it all. This was the way kids behaved away from the prying eyes of their parents.

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.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles does the same for adults, unleashing the kind of antisocial outbursts that went against Reagan’s family values by exposing the thinly-veiled grievances festering beneath, the kind that were part and parcel of late-20th century life. It’s no fun getting dicked around to the point of combustion, but it’s sure fun seeing it happen to someone else, however wrong it may feel. We laugh at the gallows humour of abundant misfortune because we identify with life’s propensity to wear you down. We empathise with these characters on the most fundamental level. We know as well as they do that there are times when you have to laugh to simply keep from crying.

Planes-Trains-Automobiles-3

The comedy comes thick and fast — the awkward scene in which Del and Neal share a late night snuggle, the cringing 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 film flourishes during moments of great poignancy, especially that famous twist, one so emotive and powerful in its ability to alter our perceptions that Neal experiences something of an emotional renaissance. What we’re left with is the kind of unlikely bond that was forged against unimaginable odds, and as a result will almost certainly last forever.

Cinema has gifted us with a plethora of fantastic road movies, but very few achieve the emotional resonance of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and even fewer feature two personalities so strictly at odds who manage to break down seemingly impenetrable boundaries. The film gives us two of comedy’s most memorable characters, but it’s the journey, one of the most rewarding of the era, that unites them so irrevocably. Life’s funny like that. You have an idea of the kind of person you feel most comfortable with, but people are much more complex than we give them credit for, and you can’t always trust first impressions, or in this case your second, fourth or seventh. On any other day, Neal would have returned home to his family with stories of the most insufferable human being on the face of the planet, the kind he’d much rather forget.

Del, he no longer has a home, and the very real tragedy life can spring has allowed him the kind of perspective most are unable to acquire until it’s 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 spirit, and his persistence is less an accident waiting to happen, more a subconscious product of desperation and loneliness.

It’s hard to identify those kinds of emotions in others, and even harder to deal with them, but the holiday season typically brings out the best in people, regardless of how selfish life can make us. When the personification of all of Neal’s fears lands directly in his lap, his cynicism turns to anger, but then to acceptance and the realization that these incidents may one day be looked upon as the good times, as those occasions when you had no other choice than to just go with it. When you strip it all down, those are the moments that truly matter. The anger and frustration, we know how and when to let go. We know when to put it all behind us and just forget. Unless, of course, there’s a special reason not to.

Director: John Hughes
Screenplay: John Hughes
Music: Ira Newborn
Cinematography: Donald Peterman
Editing: Paul Hirsch

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: