I’ve never been a big traveler, so the national controversy about the new body scans and searches at airport security terminals has been a little bit lost on me. I understand the points of view in play, but travel too infrequently for it to make much of a difference to me.
When I consider how all of this controversy has started during the holiday season though, I can’t help but smile at the irony. Few things seem to make people more miserable than holiday travel, whether it’s the crowded airports, delayed flight schedules, packed highways or the close family member you simply can’t stand to be in a car with for longer than a few minutes. Group these variables with extra-invasive body search procedures and you have a recipe for some holiday insanity.
This controversy made me think of a movie I had never seen before, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” probably the ultimate holiday travel movie. In this film, Steve Martin and John Candy suffer through delayed flights, malfunctioning trains, flaming cars, pickpockets, incompetent rental car companies, tiny hotel rooms and each other on a two-day trek to Chicago for Thanksgiving. It’s all very funny, and by the end you really never want to travel again.
The film was written, produced and directed by John Hughes, that poet of ’80s comedy best known for films like “Sixteen Candles” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Hughes’s films always seem like yuck-yuck comedies on the surface, but possess so much heart that you always connect with the characters and care about their fates. “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is no exception. It starts out like an Abbot and Costello road comedy and morphs into a character study of two markedly different people. For as much humor as there is in this film, there is just as much honesty and sincerity.
The film starts out with Neil Page (Martin), an advertising executive, trapped in a board meeting in New York. He desperately needs to make it to the airport to catch a 6 p.m. flight to Chicago. After rushing out of the meeting, he tries to catch a cab on the busy Manhattan streets. He comes close once, but has the cab stolen by Del Griffith (Candy), who disregards him and rides off to the airport.
Later on in the airport terminal, he spies Del sitting across from him. He narrows his eyes and confronts Del about taking the cab. This is probably one of the more unwise decisions of his life. Del turns out to be an affable blabbermouth who is soon talking Neal’s ear off with one unamusing anecdote after another. Neal, an uptight yuppie with zero people skills, tries to wriggle away, but is soon encountering Del everywhere he goes.
After their plane is diverted from Chicago to Wichita, he has to take Del’s help in finding a hotel room. While the two share a room (and a bed) for the night, a burglar breaks in and steals all the cash from their wallets. Soon the two are de facto travel companions, bound together for their journey to Chicago.
In Del Griffith, Candy creates a truly iconic character. With a thick mustache and a broad, welcoming smile, Del is warm and friendly almost as a life choice. He has a story for every situation and a comment to disrupt any peaceful moment. It’s easy to understand Neal’s frustration with him, but Del is more than a cartoon character. Candy plays him with a quiet vulnerability, letting subtle traces of sadness drift out when Neal is at his most surly. It’s in moments like these that Del really steals your heart. Candy’s performance is so sweet and real that it sets the tone for the film, bringing heart to what would otherwise be silly slapstick and nothing more.
Martin is good in a less showy way. He has the straight man part, never a fun part to play, as you are always standing in the shadow of the funny guy. Martin finds the right note for the character though, creating an uptight guy who lacks the common touch. One funny moment comes on a bus where Neal tries to lead the passengers in a sing-a-long of “Three Coins in a Fountain,” a dry number he can hardly remember himself. As he crashes and burns, Del steps in to save the day with a rendition of “Meet the Flintstones.”
Martin gets another great scene where he yells at a clerk (Edie McClurg) at a rental car agency after he finds out his rental isn’t where it is supposed to be. Martin rants and raves, using the F-word with every other phrase. The scene is hilariously profane, but has an accessible quality that makes it even funnier; how many times have you been in the same situation and wanted to do the exact same thing?
I can’t end a review of this movie without bringing up its funniest moment. After spending a night in a hotel room together, Neal wakes up with Del’s arms wrapped around him. After exchanging horrified looks, the two men spring to their feet. After pacing awkwardly for a few moments, Neal asks, “Did you see that Bears game?” Eager for anything to say, Del responds with, “What a game! What a game! The Bears gonna go all the way!” I’ve seen this moment copied in probably 100 other comedies. It was good to see the first, and funniest, version of it.
Reach Dennis O’Neil at 270-887-3237 or firstname.lastname@example.org.