Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Not having seen it for a fair few years, I was rather surprised at how much I enjoyed Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I mean, I've always liked it and I've always known it's funny, but I'd kind of forgotten just how good it is. And it's very good indeed.

The first bit that had me laughing was the showdown with Kevin Bacon, where he and Neal Page (Steve Martin) are trying to get a cab. It's a scene I've seen numerous times, and I could pretty much remember exactly what happens and when it happens, but I'd forgotten one little bit: there's a bit where Neal is running along the pavement and he gets temporarily held up by a black guy. They stand in front of each other, trying to get past, but the black guy is almost break dancing. I don't know why, but I found it damned hilarious. I think it was just how silly it was.

Soon after there's another tiny little moment that cracked me up. Neal has rushed to the airport but he's missed his plane, so he has to sit opposite Del (John Candy). He looks at him for a while, trying to remember where he knows him from (he stole his cab) and then it clicks. But instead of a quick flashback to the scene on the New York street where Neal opens the taxi door and sees Del's startled face, Del, while sitting on a chair in front of him, is framed in a taxi door and he briefly recreates the startled expression. Again it's the silliness I like.

But while the film is silly, it works so well because it keeps a decent grip on reality. The two main characters, an advertising executive and a travelling salesman, seem like people you could actually meet. And although no one (hopefully) would experience the accumulation of events these characters experience, on their own they're more than feasible.

My favourite cock up (for lack of a better term) is when they have to share the motel room. But my favourite moment isn't the bit when they wake up together. As good as that is, there's another moment I like more. It's the moment when Neal sees the double bed. Some nervous disjointed music immediately starts playing and the camera slowly pans around to Del, who looks just as shocked. However, he quickly cracks an awkward grin. It's fantastically played, and the pay-off is when Del asks Neal if he wants to take a shower. For a second Neal thinks Del is coming onto him and Del quickly realises his mistake, leading to yet more nervous banter. But the scene's great because it captures that anxiety you get when you unexpectedly find that you have to share your private space with a stranger. You don't know whether they're going to bore you or rape you.

Thankfully Neal is merely bored by Del – or irritated to put it more accurately. And this leads to another excellent bit where Neal tears Del to shreds. He has a go at him and instead of stopping he just goes on and on and on. And although he speaks the truth, it really is too much. And even Neal realises he's gone too far. But what the exchange does so well is that it shifts your sympathies. Before you feel sorry for Neal being stuck with this blabbermouth. But then with Del's dignified response, it's him you feel sorry for; he tries to help this yuppie jerk and all he gets is a mouthful of abuse in return.

However, this moment isn't dwelt upon and the comedy soon resumes with the famous pillow scene. But even funnier than that is when some hick drives Neal and Del to the train station. I particularly like the line about the hick's wife giving birth sideways but not screaming. She'd make a cracking Scientologist. And of course, the shot of the frozen dog is priceless.

I have to say, out of planes, trains and automobiles, the automobile section has to be the best. It starts off with a torrent of F-words that had me beside myself with mirth as a kid and continues with Neal getting picked up by his balls and Del burning their car to bits. But again it's one of the little bits that makes me laugh the most. It's the bit when Neal and Del are driving in the wrong direction. When they see the trucks approaching, Neal almost starts spazzing, and then for a brief moment he sees Del dressed as the Devil, cackling like a madman. Pure genius.

But the icing on the cake, the thing that makes me feel so affectionately towards the film, is the ending. I mean, as a kid it was the dull sappy bit that came after the laughs. But now it's the wonderful bit where a grown man gets all choked up.

The revelation that Del is homeless and lost his wife eight years previously could have been the cue for some maudlin tripe. But instead it rounds Del's character perfectly. You know why he's so desperate to latch onto somebody. Plus it gives more emotion to previous scenes where Del says that his wife likes him and when Neal makes a toast, saying that at the very least Del has someone to grow old with. Therefore it's a beautiful moment when, after hearing this, you cut to Neal and Del walking to Neal's house. They're finally standing together, side-by-side as friends, carrying Del's trunk – that very moment, as well as making me misty-eyed, also puts a huge, soppy grin on my face. At last the uptight yuppie is capable of empathy and at last Del is understood and accepted. It's one of my favourite endings in any film: cheesy 80s music + lovable fat man = emotion.

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