Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Planes, Trains and Automobiles ★★★★★

One thing that I love so dearly about John Hughes' writing is the way that he constantly keeps doing a lovely flip of our expectations going in at the top of the show. His movies always keep U-turning so deftly that you end up getting things from them that you didn't anticipate, leaving us all the more fulfilled and never less than surprised.

You want a for-instance? Try analysing 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' from a structural perspective. Notice how the movie ultimately turns out to be about Cameron, not Ferris. Without us ever even noticing the gear shift, with writing so good that you never even pay attention to it. Look at 'Uncle Buck', the conclusion to which involves not Buck himself, but Tia coming into her own moment of self-actualisation and finding emotional peace. We came for a broad John Candy slapstick comedy. But we stayed for the heart. That's the Hughes effect. And then there's 'Some Kind Of Wonderful', when we realise at about the same moment that Keith does that we've spent the whole movie rooting for the wrong girl. It's gorgeous, empathetic screenwriting.

If you're here, then you're probably already aware that 'Planes, Trains & Automobiles' features its three principal players (Hughes, Martin, Candy) at the absolute peak of their powers. The movie is so familiar and beloved, its quotations so instantly totemic and recognisable, that, as I come to my annual traditional seasonal rewatch, I thought that there may be a danger by now that this year the movie would have nothing left for me to discover.

But I reckoned without Hughes' ability to enrich his writing with so much uncanny skill as to render infinite viewings equally rewarding. Even if it's an annual tradition for you too, 'Planes, Trains, & Automobiles' is a well that will never run dry. And, to return us to the point about Hughes turning expectations on their head, what stands out to me this time is how skilfully Hughes inverts the power dynamic between its own very odd couple, Steve Martin's Neal and John Candy's Del. On paper, on a strictly superficial reading, we're invited to look upon Neal as the sympathetic, slick, successful, omnicompetent one. And Del as the annoying, feeble hanger-on that he just can't get rid of.

But Hughes has other ideas, and does, yet again, a lovely little flip. Something that never occurred to me before but seems clear as day now :

Del is actually the competent one. And Neal is actually the heel of the movie.

It's Del, not Neal, that arranges the booking at the Braidwood Inn.

It's Del, not Neal, who manages to get a rental car without fuss, and without finding himself stranded in the middle of the parking lot.

It's Del, not Neal, who improvises a successful grift to earn cash by passing off shower curtain rings as earrings

It's Del, not Neal, that manages to arrange a ride from The Braidwood Inn and later in the freezer truck to Chicago.

It's Del who continually demonstrates adroit social skills and shows aptitude for interpersonal relationships. Neal's attempts at either getting through bureaucratic regulations (like the argument with the stewardess over his first-class ticket) are mostly unsuccessful. He coldly rejects Del's attempt at conversation. Later, his own attempt to strike up a conversation with the girl on the train is strained and lacks the warmth that comes naturally to Del (a remarkably subtle mirror of the scene on the plane, quiet genius from Hughes again). Neal's attempt to get in the spirit of the improvised karaoke session on the bus with his suggestion of 'Three Coins In A Fountain' quickly falls flat on its ass, while Del successfully reads the room and gets everyone going with a rendition of the theme to 'The Flintstones'.

Oh sure, its Neal that has the slick clothes, the great job, the big house, the lovely family and gorgeous wife. But Hughes, and Martin, are too clever to automatically make him the object of our sympathy. You strip those superficial attributes from Neal, rip him out of his bubble of affluence, and he becomes flailing, inept, out of his depth. Del would never have unleashed such a torrent of red-band invective at that car rental clerk. He'd never have needed to. Neal needs Del far more than Del needs Neal.

This is the Hughes effect. 'Planes, Trains, & Automobiles' is absolutely as billed, a story about a successful man who encounters an annoying dolt that he can't shake. But the successful man and the annoying dolt are not the people I thought they were. And I only just realised that after thirty-one years of adoring this immortal movie. I can't wait to discover what else this movie has in store for me.

See you next year.

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