Sunday, November 28, 2021

Holiday Watch: Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

Watched:  11/28/2021
Format:  Amazon
Viewing:  unknown
Decade:  1980's
Director:  John Hughes

This may be a misperception, but it often seems to me that people discuss and possibly remember Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) differently from what the movie actually is (to me).  The film definitely has some large and broad comedic moments, but it's not really a slapsticky comedy.  And for long stretches, it's not actually funny.  

I wouldn't say I don't like it, but it's also not a movie I rush into rewatching - as evidenced by the fact that Jamie and I have been married 21 years and tonight she mentioned she'd never seen this film.  So, we put it on.

John Hughes wrote, directed and produced the film and it was part of his move away from the Ringwald teen movies and his move to not just be known as a director of those famous films.  What's curious is how odd it feels seeing the same flow of his teen comedies, that move from comedy to more serious beats in the third act where lessons are sincerely learned, is applied here as well.  And it works - I'm not saying it doesn't, but I think when I hear people discuss this movie, they always just laugh and say "those aren't pillows!", which, honestly is a gag that aged kinda badly and is nowhere near the funniest part of the movie (that's the car bursting into flames as they sit on the trunk on the side of the road).

My memory of the movie is that I found it... melancholy.  As a kid, I don't know that I'd seen a movie where two grown men overcome differences and form a friendship - not incidentally along the way, but in a way that that's the point of the film.  I especially can't think of a film that so clearly articulates the loneliness of one of them who knows he desperately needs a friend, and the emptiness/ rage of the other who  simply doesn't know it yet.  

Hughes knew people - I assume he loved people.  And Planes, Trains and Automobiles was a sort of perfect modern backdrop for looking at men in ways that are ultimately far more understandable than, say, exciting sci-fi adventure or the perils of war.  The extremes of the film are not life threatening, they're simply - the worst case scenario for a lot of people who just want to make it home.  But that tension and stress is real, identifiable and ripe for both comedy and tragedy.

We'd see similar exploration of adults using comedy and tragedy show up even in Uncle Buck a few years and a couple of movies later.  I love Uncle Buck, but it can get a little heavy here and there (and as a bonus-sized, child-free uncle who loves the Cubs, I will be forebidding the niece and nephew from seeing it).  

We've had a fair chance to see Steve Martin try many things over his career, and I'm not shocked he could take on the role of dickish marketing exec and play it for both comedy and laughs.  But the real weight of the film rests on the shoulders of the less-relatable Del Griffith, played by John Candy.  And, man, was Candy good.  Had he not passed so young, I can't imagine what he might have been given to do, eventually, once he got past the doldrums of a tapering wacky-comedy career.  Most of his comedy didn't come from a place of pathos (just thinking of the end of Vacation), but here he manages a lot - and a lot of it is simply on his face more than anything said.

Anyway, glad to see it again and very glad Jamie finally saw it.

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