' ' Cinema Romantico: Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and Del Griffith's Soul

Friday, January 11, 2013

Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and Del Griffith's Soul

On the eve of New Year's Eve I caught a showing of "This Is 40." On New Year's Eve proper I re-indulged in 1987's "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." This was pure coincidence as I had planned to watch the latter on Thanksgiving eve only to have it fall victim to the dreaded "long wait" in my overflowing Netflix queue. So, it moved down, a few films moved up, it became available, and when I returned to Chicago after going home for Christmas - presto! It was waiting for me!

Later in the evening in the midst of a New Year's Eve semi-soiree, the conversation drifted to J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" which led into "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" which I had mentioned watching earlier. A friend took issue with how much of Abrams' reboot of the beloved Gene Rodenberry franchise was stuffed with extreme bouts of happenstance. Another friend said this was his exact problem with "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" - he said, "Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong." My first friend rebutted that this was okay because "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" was, above all else, a comedy, and in comedies such transgressions are more easily forgiven. But, to myself I wondered.

I did not wonder about the argument of happenstance. No, I wondered about the declaration of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" as a comedy.

Well, it is a comedy. Of course, it is a comedy, and that is precisely what got me to thinking. Its maker, John Huges, has been compared to Judd Apatow - or maybe I should say it is the other way around - and in Apatow's last two films, "Funny People" and "This Is 40", he has really tried to meld comedy with drama, not always successfully. And what resonated with me most during the NYE viewing of Hughes' mid-80's film was how poignant it was and how it achieved that poignancy through no more than two scenes.

"You want to hurt me? Go ahead if it makes you feel any better. I'm an easy target. Yeah, you're right. I talk too much. But I also listen too much. I can be a cold hearted cynic like you. But I don't like to hurt people's feelings. Think what you want about me but I'm not changing. I like me. My wife likes me. Because I'm the real article. What you see is what you get."

That's Del Griffith (John Candy) talking to Neal Page (Steve Martin), two men thrown together by fate when they attempt to hail the same cab and wind up sitting next to each other on a flight to Chicago that is diverted to Wichita which is where they are - in a cramped one bedroom motel - when Neal, fed up with his suddenly new roommate's boorish behavior, unleashes a hysterical if terribly mean-spirited monologue. ("I could tolerate any insurance seminar. For days I could listen to them go on and on with a big smile on my face. They'd say, 'How can you stand it?' I'd say, 'Because I've been with Del Griffith. I can take anything.'")

John Candy was thought primarily of as a comedian and, rest assured, he wrests every bit of hilarity possible out of the chatty Cathy Del. But Candy also had an underrated and mostly untapped ability to mine for drama, and as Martin throws punch after punch we watch Candy take each one with pain and with dignity.

You can sense years of hurt that perhaps he has repressed in the way he listens as Neal piles it on. Yet, when Neal finishes and Del gets his chance to respond, we get a different sense - the sense of a man who has made with his acknowledged faults and no longer minds the man in the mirror even though he knows full well the man in the mirror ain't perfect.

"Well, Marie, once again, my dear, you were right as rain. I am, without a doubt, the biggest pain in the butt that ever came down the pipe. I meet someone whose company I really enjoy and what do I do? I go overboard. I smoother the poor soul. I cause him more trouble than he has a right to. God, I've got a big mouth. When am I ever gonna wake up?"

That's Del Griffith talking to himself much later in the movie in a scene that would be ridiculous - he is in their burnt-to-a-crisp rental car (no longer with windows or a roof) dressed up in his parka and plaid cap, like a forlorn Frosty as it begins to snow - if it was not so close to the heart.

It's the first time we essentially see Del AWAY from Neal and alone with his own thoughts and without the possibility of idle chatter to distract from what he really feels. And this, apparently, is what he really feels. And this is when we realize he DOES mind the man in the mirror, that he is hyper aware of his faults, and has been for quite some time, and is still unable to deal with or correct them. This is when we realize that in that first scene, that scene underscored by sentimental synthesized 80's music, he was lying to himself. When he's gonna wake up? Clearly, he doesn't know.

Maybe he suspects he never will.


Derek Armstrong said...

I love this post, thanks. We've all had moments in our lives when we've hauled off on somebody who we thought deserved our rage, then immediately realized we had totally gotten them wrong and hated ourselves. Thank God for the Del Griffiths in this world to set us straight with dignity and without using our own tactics back against us.

Your observation of how Planes Trains goes from a comedy to a drama (-ish) in only two scenes kind of floored me. The comedy in this movie can be so broad that if it weren't for those two scenes, I'm not sure if I would even like it that much, let alone love it. But love it I do. Candy was capable of some really special moments, perhaps most unexpectedly in the underrated Uncle Buck, which I really need to see again sometime. He also has some really sublime moments in Splash.

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks, man! Glad you enjoyed this one! I hadn't really planned to write it and then it just sort of spilled out.

You make an interesting point - what WOULD this movie feel like out without these two moments to just sort of level it out? But in John Hughes' best stuff he was pretty good at doing that, and it's even more impressive that he recognized that quality in Candy.