• U.S.


3 minute read
Richard Schickel

What is the holiday season’s most chilling refrain? “My mother called; she says she can stay two weeks”? “Here’s a letter from your daughter; she’s engaged and she’s bringing her fiance home so we can meet him”? “He didn’t say the whole fraternity; just the guys from his floor, and it’s only for a weekend”? Strong candidates. But for terror at its primal level, there is nothing quite like “There’s a blizzard in Chicago; they’ve just closed O’Hare.”

The effects of that horrific bulletin can plunge thousands of American lives into a maelstrom. Desperate ticket-counter pleas. Improvised sleeping arrangements. Long-distance calls to explain that you are in Wichita with no plausible hope of joining the family around the festive stuffed turkey.

In the worst-case scenario that John Hughes has worked out for tight-wired Neal Page (Steve Martin) in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, those travails are merely the beginning. Heading home from a marketing meeting in New York City and rudely denied his customary first-class air accommodations, he is wedged into a center seat in the tourist section between an old gentleman who snores and a chubby gentleman who chats. The latter is Del Griffith (John Candy), a salesman of shower-curtain rings and not at all Neal’s kind of guy. He dresses funny, is too eager to be helpful, and has abominable snacking habits. Most reprehensible, he stole a cab from Neal when both were fighting their way to the airport.

You sense immediately that circumstances are going to make them strange bedfellows in a motel hell. You know, too, that much worse will follow as this misalliance uses all the modes of transportation specified in the title (plus such unnamed delights as a farm truck, a refrigerator truck and a bus that grinds to an unpleasant halt) in the desperate effort to get home. We are also aware of two agreeable things about Hughes. The first is that he has a nice, easy gift for unforced farce (see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). The other is that his teen romances (see Pretty in Pink) have always insisted that the American underclass is actually superior to its middle-class betters in worldly wisdom and moral acuity. Both his comic virtue and his social vision are on pleasant display here.

It is, of course, always a pleasure to watch Martin’s steam-gauge face register his rising internal pressures and to witness his exquisitely expressed blowoffs. But Candy offers even more insinuating delights. Covering lonely need with empty gab, insecurity with a not entirely trustworthy savvy, he is the most dangerous kind of pest, the type who worms rather than blusters his way into your life. The movie works the same way. For all its broadly farcical air, Planes, Trains and Automobiles finally seals its bond with the audience in the same way that Martin and Candy seal theirs, with a sly, shy resort to sentiment. Maybe that’s just the spirit of the season, but one does not mind indulging it.

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