Saturday, December 06, 2014

80s Revisited: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
Written, produced and directed by John Hughes.

I just don't see it.

I think I first saw this movie on HBO when I was about 12, in 1988, and I didn't much care for it. It was one of those things I filed away in my brain as "maybe I'll get it when I'm older" and moved on. But for years, I saw it grow into--here in the Midwest, at least--a beloved holiday classic. When I worked at Hollywood Video, people would come in begging for this movie every Thanksgiving; we had to get extra copies of it. Roger Ebert put it in his Great Movies collection and compared the movie to enduring classics like Casablanca. It was a box office hit when it came out. People in Chicago love it. So, I figured it was finally time to sit down and see what all the love is about.

I still don't see it.

I don't know what it is, but this movie just doesn't work on me. It comes off to me as stiff and formulaic, and I'm not sure what the point of it is.

Steve Martin and John Candy star as two businessmen in Manhattan who want to get home to Chicago for Thanksgiving in two days. Martin's Neal Page is stiff, precise, structured, and anal retentive. Candy's Del Griffith is obnoxious, disheveled, and a people-pleaser. These two end up traveling together on a roundabout, snow-delayed journey to the Windy City that tests both men.

This is classic road picture stuff, but for me the slapstick of the gags never really came through. Hughes is much more interested in peeling back the layers of both men, and that's where I guess the picture got hung up for me. I thought John Candy did a great job of making Del more than just a comedy type. He and Hughes together create a man who has hidden depths, hidden pain, and a seemingly endless reserve of empathy, even for someone who constantly hurts him the way Neal does.

In Steve Martin, though, I feel like the character Neal never really rises above a stock comedy type. The film never really sets him up as, say, having to become more empathetic, or having to learn to go with the flow in uneasy situations. He's just kind of a dick and stays that way through the first two acts. Are we supposed to root for him? Or are we supposed to think he's getting what's coming to him? Or are we just supposed to laugh at how everything goes wrong because travel is so inherently unpleasant? I have to admit, that's a kind of comedy situation that I've always found more frustrating than anything else.

I liked parts of it. Their first night in a motel together is a classic little scene. I enjoyed it so much that for a while I wished the whole movie had just been set on that one night, in that one location. For me, it was really the only scene that balanced the gags with Hughes' attempt to give the characters more nuance. (That scene where Neal tears in on Del and his boring stories and John Candy's face just falls proves my contention that Candy was an underrated actor. Unfortunately, since Steve Martin had been so one-dimensional up until then, it made it even harder for me to like his character.)

I also loved the "Mess Around" sequence (Candy in that scene reminded me a lot of my Dad) and Steve Martin's great flourish with the F-word at the rental car desk. And I love the post-credit gag. I think I laughed harder at that than anything else in the movie.

Overall, I just don't see it. I just don't understand why this movie is so beloved. I'm not saying it's bad or that people are wrong to like it... it just doesn't work on me and I'm genuinely not sure why that is. I do think there wasn't as much catharsis as I hoped there would be. Thanksgiving was always so stressful and uncomfortable for me so I don't really find any inherent humor in it. I'm not sorry I watched it--frankly, I'm still sorry, 20 years later, that John Candy died, and I love watching him. I thought this was one of his best performances.

But it's just not for me, I guess.


phoniexflames said...

I kind of agree. Maybe I'm arriving at conclusion too hastily, but I have never really seen Steven Martin to be anything other than one-dimensional. In everything I've seen, it's like he's putting up a facade of exactly one expression, one note without any sort of depth to it. I never see him loosen up or change, I never see him lose himself into any role, whether it's a comedy or drama.

I don't know. I love John Candy. I love the morning scene in the motel, same as you. But I think that Steve Martin drags down everything he's in because he just doesn't have the ability to really become a character.

SamuraiFrog said...

I have an uncle who has just always despised Steve Martin, ever since his 70s heyday. In his review of Three Amigos, Roger Ebert describes Martin in that movie as "deigning to play his character," and I think there's some of that in a lot of Steve Martin's performances. Oddly, I tend to like him more in dramas. He seems more engaged.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Steve Martin was very good in Pennies From Heaven.

Roger Owen Green said...

Steve Martin is a good dramatoc actor. I do like the film.

But I saw a week ago a current well-received film that left me cold, so cold that I still haven't written a review.

SamuraiFrog said...

Tallulah: I agree. That's an underrated movie.

Roger: Interesting... you have me curious.

For some reason, I always remember when Steve Martin was doing press for Father of the Bride, and critics were saying it was more dramatic than usual for him, and I remember someone asking him "Do you find it unusual to be doing a more dramatic role?" and he looked very hurt and said "I already feel like I've done five."

I'm not sure what about the slapsticky-but-cute Father of the Bride screamed drama to people, especially in the year he appeared in Grand Canyon, but okay.

MC said...

I remember watching a documentary about Hughes which said that Steve Martin basically wouldn't take direction from the former.

And apparently, that scene near the end of the film where Martin is riding the train and being expressive was filmed while Martin was unaware so it was his most natural performance in the movie.

SamuraiFrog said...

Both of those statements explain a lot. That scene with Martin on the train, I kept thinking, whoa, where's all this emotion coming from?