Thursday, November 26, 2009

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

As I sit here tonight, cradling a full stomach and nursing a head cold, I've turned to two things for comfort: Nyquil (so forgive me if this review slips into the realm of garbled non-sequitur when that miraclous green sludge kicks in) and Planes, Trains & Automobiles. There's something wretchedly pathetic about a 20-year-old's nostalgia, particularly for something that's actually older than he is, but I wonder we'll ever have another film of its kind. A Thanksgiving film, I mean. Every other major holiday has numerous films that revolve around that particularly day (well, maybe Independence Day is the only one for July 4, but that film so inadvertently summarizes that holiday that no one needed to try again). Heck, one has a veritable pick of the litter for Christmas, whether you like so-sugary-it'll-give-you-diabetes nostalgia (A Christmas Story), family-is-hell farce (Christmas Vacation) or even love-to-hate cynicism (Bad Santa). And I'm not even counting the approximately 12,000 versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (though attention must be paid to The Muppet Christmas Carol, king of the adaptations and indeed the Christmas genre).

Thanksgiving, if I might break out the soapbox now and be done with it, doesn't even exist anymore. Now, Thanksgiving is merely a feast to build and store one's energy for the subsequent Christmas shopping spree. Christ, the economy was so bad this year that Black Friday started on Monday. Of course, this isn't entirely a recent occurrence; one could spot the trouble on the horizon all the way back to 1947's Miracle on 34th Street, a staple of the Christmas genre, which builds its plot upon an opening at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. That was the real Red Tide of the late '40s, one that foresaw our current situation, in which the Ghost of Christmas Future has become the Present, his skeletal talons clawing for yet more territory by eviscerating our beloved celebration of a time when we relied on the Native Americans for food, before we figured it out for ourselves and killed them in repayment (be thankful we were the only ones with guns!).

I suppose -- as I appear dead-set on derailing this review before it even begins, spurred on by the tongue-loosening treacle that is the deadly Q, its green haze slowly clouding my vision -- that this is as good a time as any to discuss the late John Hughes. As a child of the '90s, and someone who's never really fit in with the youth zeitgeist anyway, Hughes doesn't hold the place in my heart he does for the Gen X'ers. I find that his screenplays typically waver between hip youth comedies that do not age well and message-heavy pictures that slam on the brakes at odd intervals to remind of Serious Issues (there is a great deal of overlap between the two).*

That may be one of the many reasons why I so dearly love his masterpiece Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Neither facile comedy nor a heavy-handed issues picture, it instead finds the best elements of both of these styles while omitting the weaker aspects of the rest of Hughes' corpus. For make no mistake: this is a farce, albeit one played with a straight face rather than a winking nod. It is also, at times, dramatic and serious, but its messages are fluidly integrated into the film instead of set apart and lit with neon. It is also a holiday film that impressively links to the deeper meanings behind its holiday beyond superficial lip service.

As farce requires simplicity, Hughes' story can be summed up in a single sentence: a man attempts to go home for Thanksgiving but cannot. The man in question is Neal Page (Steve Martin), an advertising executive currently working in New York and set to fly back home to Chicago to see his family for the first time in weeks. But a meeting runs long, his cab is stolen and the flight is delayed. When he finally gets on a plane, he's bumped from first class to coach, and then the plane must divert to Wichita due to a blizzard.

Adding to this misery is one Del Griffith (John Candy), the man who stole Neal's cab and, of course, sat next to him in his downgraded coach seat. Del is the sort of person who embodies the idea of "trying too hard": he's a kind, affable man, but he treats strangers like close friends, regaling them with long-winded stories that cannot qualify as anecdotes because they ultimately serve no point. Even his laugh is overly ingratiating, widening his mouth to swallow his face to emit a staccato chuckle of a laugh. He makes a living selling shower ring curtains (or earrings, depending on whom he's pitching), the sort of prosaic, meaningless occupation that seems perfectly fitting. He offers to use his connections to get Neal a room in Wichita, setting in motion one of the weirder buddy movies, a genre that is predicated on off-kilter juxtapositions.

Though the buddy film had existed for years, Martin and Candy almost seem like the archetypes for the genre's characters: Martin, the detached, ironic stand-up, is perfect as the uptight, no-nonsense character, while the lovable, physically comic Candy can make Del's exaggerations identifiable. At the motel in Wichita, Neal, fed up with the day's events, unleashes on Del, criticizing him for the exact things we all feel for his ilk -- a hatred of his "amusing" stories, his irritating cheerfulness, the way people like that think that laughing off serious problems is a valid way of handling them and thus wondering why normal people get stress -- and Candy's slow deflation is one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever seen in the movies. And then, he rallies; "Yeah, you're right," he calmly states. "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." He says, with childlike yet forceful simplicity, "I like me," and the effect is so staggering even Neal stops in his tracks.

The rest of the journey unites the two in an odd friendship, as they suffer yet more setbacks and find a certain comfort from this mad world in each other. A thief nabs the cash out of both their wallets, but at least Neal has a credit card. Until their rental car catches fire with his wallet inside. They hitch rides at times, but they never seem to make it into the actual cabs, always stuck in the backs of trucks in the middle of snow-blanketed Kansas and Missouri. Yet the trip is therapeutic, softening Neal's self-absorption and taming the more insufferable attributes of Del's kindness. Such moments grow naturally from the ills that befall the pair, and they never obstruct the comedy, which is as bountiful and filling as a Turkey Day feast.

Two bits continue to strike me as particularly hilarious: the first takes place in the Wichita motel, the morning after their argument and subsequent burying of the hatchet. Sharing a bed, they each reached out to their imagined loved ones in the night, waking to find themselves spooning and holding hands. "Where's your other hand?" asks Neal. "Between two pillows." "Those aren't pillows!" It starts with typical homophobic jitters and gagging, then Hughes pushes it further until he mocks such responses with Neal and Del's desperate attempts to find something macho to discuss to prove how manly they are. "See that Bears game last week?" "Yeah, helluva a game, helluva game. Bears gotta great team this year." There's also something tremendously funny about the way this scene of mock-post-coital cuddling coming off their harsh conversation the night before, a subtle evocation of makeup sex.

The other notable comic triumph, and the film's most famous scene, occurs at a rental car agency. After receiving the keys to the wrong car and being forced to walk three miles back from the airport to the agency, Neal looks like he might produce a shotgun at any minute and start indiscriminately killing customer and representative alike. He approaches the counter of a woman enjoying a personal phone conversation who waves him off when he clears his throat. When she at least hangs up and turns to him with one of those painted-on smiles, he launches into a tirade. In the space of one minute, Martin uses the word "fuck" 18 times in a picture that would have otherwise barely garnered a PG rating. The concentration of the film's swearing into this one scene makes it hilarious, more so because Martin does not grandstand and shout but hisses silently in true anger.

The ending comes with a twist, but one designed to enhance the emotional weight of the story, not create some out of thin air. Its happy ending is not saccharine but deeply felt, a validation of the men's trials as evidenced in Neal's flashbacks on the train, in which Hughes contrasts thoughts of his children and his memories of his time with Del, both of which elicit the same smiling, loving reaction. Before fading out to the credits, the frame freezes on John Candy's smiling visage, smiling so that his pudgy cheeks push his eyes into squints, and I am reminded of the great pain of losing someone so vibrant. I remember as a kid just wanting to reach through the screen of his movies and hug John candy, feeling it would be like hugging Winnie the Pooh and Santa Claus all at once. Even now, I see the way his great mound of flesh wriggles when he laughs, or the way that a simple slump of his shoulders can bring me as close to tears as the end of Casablanca. So I lament him, as I do Hughes, for all his weakness. I also mourn the passage of films like this, broad comedies with a true heart, the likes of which Judd Apatow and his sphere of influence has been trying to recreate for years now without the recipe. And, as this film is so much a part of its subject, I mourn Thanksgiving, the fading luster of its wonderful message, no matter how dark the truth behind it might be.

Yet, if I stopped there, I would
be just as guilty of casting aside the holiday, so let me really blog here for a minute and discuss that for which I give thanks. Friends and family are a given, but consider this my thanks anyway. For Roger Ebert, Jonathan Rosenbuam, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris, Dave Kehr, James Agee, Cahiers, Film Comment, and all the other intelligent critics and film publications out there who have offered and continue to offer revealing, beautifully written criticism and analysis of the cinema. For Deron Overpeck, my Intro to Film Studies professor last year, the only witty, enthusiastic and utterly engaging professor I've yet had in college after almost three full years. For David Bordwell, whose instructional writings reassure me that I might be able to learn something about academic film studies when my college offers so few courses on film. For Bergman, Scorsese, Herzog, Welles, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Peckinpah, Ford, Lynch, Kaufman, Lang and Murnau. For Whedon, Simon and Sorkin. For filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, who are so independent and confident that they continue to make films that don't cater to anyone's wishes, including those of people like myself who consider ourselves adventurous moviegoers. For people like Jim Emerson, James Berardinelli, Tim Brayton, Ed Howard, Jason Bellamy -- to name but an obscenely omissive few -- who prove that serious, well-written criticism is not only possible on the Internet but greatly abetted by it.

And lastly, I'm thankful for those who somehow found this blog, read it and gave me feedback and suggestions. Your input is invaluable to me and I can only hope that I receive more in the future. Thank you. Oh, and thank you, Nyquil, for easing this sore throat with your sickly sweet serum. You may take me to the land of the dreamless sleep now.

*I confess that I was somewhat amused to check his IMDb profile and see that he wrote the remake of Miracle on 34th Street. It's a small world after all, huh?