Planes, Trains and Automobiles teaches the other comedies of errors that an error in character is much more significant than an error in judgment. And much more redeemable.
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A comedy of errors can be very frustrating, as in National Lampoon’s Vacation, if the biggest error of them all is being a very stupid person. If only Clark Griswold wasn’t so dumb, maybe he wouldn’t have been cheated by those mechanics or gotten lost in the wilderness without his map. The errors he makes are in judgment. It’s hard to root for the guy, even if it’s easy to laugh at him.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles is special because it’s a comedy of errors that understands how that’s basically just a comedy of human nature. Neal Page (Steve Martin) doesn’t do anything stupid to bring down this storm of shit, and snow, and mean flight attendants, and car fires, and three hundred pounds of John Candy. His negative energy follows him around like a bad shadow, as when he snidely appeals to a man’s good nature and the man replies, “I don’t have one.” Neither does Neal, which makes the appeal funny and the answer reflective. His error is that he doesn’t trust the world to have a good nature, because he can’t see one beneath his office building in New York City. He can’t see it even when it’s there, as in well-meaning blabbermouth Del Griffith (Candy) or in his Christmas card family, whom he admits that he doesn’t spend enough time with, but with the easy grace of someone talking about the book they’ve been meaning to finish. Like a certain other holiday-time tightwad, by doing nothing to deserve his punishment except be worthy of it in spirit, Neal teaches himself to have a good nature, and be worthy of his family instead. Planes, Trains and Automobiles teaches the other comedies of errors that an error in character is much more significant than an error in judgment. And much more redeemable.
So the strength of the film is all in character. Neal is a man who is not only sure of himself but sure of his surety: he acts like everyone else is doing life wrong. He would not be seen in anything but well-pressed navy suits (sometimes grey) and wears a trench coat like he’s modeling it without meaning to, and knows it. He doesn’t expect the world to be nice to him, but by golly does he expect it to be fair. When a flight attendant bumps him down to coach, or when a man steals the cab he hailed, or when an effervescent secretary twinges the last nerve still working in Neal’s strung-out psyche with nothing but a bubbly grin, his professional manners unravel (the latter results in the most satisfying use of the f-word in film history, a virtuoso stream of swearing that repurposes it as adjective, noun, verb, and even as a description for itself). There’s a line built into the film’s score that is a recording of Neal saying to no one in particular, “You’re messing with the wrong guy!” That’s Neal, in Neal’s head: always the wrong guy.
And like the best roles in film, Neal Page is more evocative of his performer than of the other archetypes he could have copied, the Clark Griswalds or the Felix Ungers (though a scene of the two men in bed recalls The Odd Couple particularly). The film doesn’t require Martin to scream too often or beat anyone up: it never breaks the forced sincerity that Martin carries with him everywhere, like he’s being put out to be so likable (is it the grey hair on this young man? Martin never seems to be on board with how much everyone likes him). The insanity is played down to a professional level, to the tune of an occasional outburst or a well-meaning bit of slapstick (Martin trips like the ground has the wrong guy). Neal is the Martin role extenuated to infinity, the comedian stuck in a businessman’s body, the classy musician cast to play a fart with a reaction like someone else should have had to smell it for him. The difference is that in Planes, Trains and Automobiles he is both the neurotic dad character made famous in other roles (Parenthood, Cheaper by the Dozen) and also a man just trying to get back to being that neurotic dad, and back at himself for not realizing earlier how lucky he was in it. “I’m a little late,” he says at the end, “and a little wiser too.” To us he means that he’s finally Steve Martin, the version that we always want to love but can’t, since he only ever appears in his movies at the very end.
For most of the film, Neal is “not a very tolerant man,” as Del charitably puts it. That one statement hides Del’s whole inner truth, and the little emotions that make the movie work. He says it after Neal’s tirade, the final straw broken not a half hour into the film, when Neal’s already so tired of Del’s anecdotes and his luminous pitches for shower curtain rings (“best in the world”) that he rails on him for a minute and a half for being boring and annoying and nosy. It’s a grotesquely long pummeling. Del’s face responds by dropping, like a man who agrees most with the person who hates him most. By admitting that Neal is not very “tolerant,” he also admits that being his own friend would be a matter of tolerance. This is Candy’s finest role because it is so close to him, to a clown that always seems depressed by the idea that he isn’t funny enough. Neal doesn’t tell him anything the people closest to him haven’t told him before. His greatest defense for his own flaws is, “What you see is what you get.”
Perhaps just going with it, even down the wrong side of the highway, is what makes Candy’s character here so much more worthwhile than his other ones. Uncle Buck was like the guy Neal sees in Del at the beginning, a blathering screwup that we need to figure out how to reprimand without hurting his feelings too much. His transgressions there were frustrating; it was all too easy to count the property damage and expenses (Planes does it with the ability to see the irony in it). But Del is the right kind of screwup because his only real flaw is that he listens to other people too much and talks too much about them. People see something about themselves when he talks about them; this makes little people adore Del and Neal resent him. Candy becomes larger than other people in this role, and not just because he gets in that little Chrysler like Snuffleupagus squeezing into a golf cart. He’s genuinely regretful to find out he stole Neal’s cab and started his whole misadventure and drives Neal crazy for the whole movie trying to make up for it. The most unlikable thing about him is how much he wants to be liked.
Neal tries to get rid of him, but they keep bouncing back into each other’s company. In the film’s most copied scene, Del falls asleep with his arm around Neal and the two wake up realizing how close they are (“Where’s your other hand?” “Between two pillows.” “Those aren’t pillows!”). They leap out of bed in horror. As in all great comedy, the joke is not in the action but in the performance of character, in this case, of two men afraid of misunderstood intimacy. It could have been crass or homophobic or cheeky and instead it’s insecurely touching, manly but with manliness at the butt of the joke (after jumping from the bed, Neal begins warbling about a Bears game and Del starts stretching and talking about scores). Chipping off Neal’s masculinity comes up more than once, as in another scene where an angry cab dispatcher dispatches Neal by the scruff of his nethers and Neal comes back the next scene talking like Alvin Chipmunk.
Immediately, I would recoil from this joke, tried, and overdone, and not very funny. But Planes, Trains and Automobiles makes even this low humor do the work for it. It doesn’t linger too long, just enough for Neal to say a few things exactly like his voice isn’t two octaves too high, and again it puts Neal’s insistence on being manly and professional and perfect as the punch line instead of the goal. Del’s cracking up, of course, not because he enjoys seeing people in pain, but because he likes a little poetic irony. He listens to the world so much that irony is probably the only thing he can expect from it at this point (Neal listens so little that he never sees it coming). It’s precisely because Del has Neal sized up so well that he’s able to laugh at him, and he’s so right that we never think of him as insensitive. He laughs precisely because of how much he understands.
By the time the two are done clashing and making up with each other and snuffing out their friendship and lighting it up again for just one more night on the road, there’s nothing left but warmth. The film would have seen greater success as a Christmas film – this would have altered its funky ’80s soundtrack (which is now like a ghost of bad movies past) and unfortunately would have also shed that wonderful orchestra of fucks. But Thanksgiving really is the appropriate core for Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which is a film not as much about changing as a Christmas film would be, but more about tolerating the worst in people so you can appreciate the best. It’s the film version of having your relatives over and dealing with the fact that your desire for things to be more perfect would drain the holiday of its temperate, tolerable joy. People aren’t perfect, though if you let them, perhaps they don’t have to be. That could have been in Candy’s eulogy: he never seemed to think more of himself than what he expected others to see in him. After Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I could never see him as less than what I got.
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This review appeared in slightly different form in the author’s estimable website Film Objective. All images are screenshots from the DVD or Blu-ray.