Judge Christopher Kulik has been with Del Griffith. He can take anything!
"Please, have mercy! I've been wearing the same underwear since Tuesday!"
John Hughes' Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a classic comedy, featuring great performances by Steve Martin and the late John Candy. After nine long years, Paramount is finally seeing fit to double-dip, but is really worth the upgrade?
Facts of the Case
NYC marketing executive Neal Page (Steve Martin, The Pink Panther) has only one ambition: to get to Chicago to be with his wife and kids for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, he finds himself stuck in Wichita, Kansas with a blabbering shower curtain ring salesman named Del Griffith (John Candy, Uncle Buck). At first, Neal finds Del crude and annoying, but eventually both begin to depend on each other to reach Chicago. Little do they realize their journey will yield utter disaster and mutual understanding.
When John Hughes died in August 2009, he had been out of the spotlight for almost 15 years, quietly retiring to his hometown of Chicago. He loved the Windy City so much it became a familiar setting in almost all his screenplays, from National Lampoon's Vacation to Home Alone. In this sense, he became Chicago's version of Woody Allen, consistently crafting humor out of realistic situations—whether it be driving cross-country, the trials and tribulations of being a teenager, or dealing with obnoxious relatives. Somehow, we were able to identify with many of his characters, no matter what they were struggling with.
Of all the films he made, he reached no closer to cinematic perfection than with Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Fans of his "teenspeak" comedies (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) can cite those as some of the most influential films of all time. Twentieth Century Fox can boast and brag about Home Alone and its sequels making a butt-load of money. My own sister places She's Having A Baby on the highest pedestal she can find. Yet it still doesn't erase the fact that Planes is the rarest of comedies, full of laughs and poignancy, possessing a genuine heart amidst all the hysterics. I can't imagine the film having a great number of detractors. It's simply impossible to dislike.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles represents a career change for all involved. Hughes began to be labeled as a teen director, and sought to branch out into more adult fare. Candy had done a string of roles which made him known as little more a loutish cartoon character. Martin was still labeled the "wild and crazy guy," starring in movies all about silliness and wacky behavior. While Martin had done Roxanne earlier in that same year, gifting him as a romantic leading man, he still dabbled in his own comic inventions. Here he plays it almost completely straight, with Hughes never allowing Candy to hog the spotlight. Usually casting two huge comedians in a film dooms it to disaster, as one tries to outplay the other. In Planes, that's never the case.
Admittedly, it boils down to being a road picture, but Hughes never loses sight of his characters and their emotions. Neil is a cynic who just wants everyone to get the hell out of his way so he can get home, while Del is a man who acknowledges his social faults, yet waves them off in harmony. The film's key moment, in which we embrace both as human beings, Neil goes off on a violent rant about how tired he is with Del's idea of stimulating conversation. It's hilarious stuff—Neil going so far as to compare Del to a Chatty Cathy doll—but while we're laughing we see the hurt in Del's eyes and the way his face seems to melt away in pain. He's obviously received this kind of verbal hazing before. In response, he doesn't break down and sob like a kid, but rather opens up his heart to Neil and admits he's far from perfect. Del says he's content with who he is as a person and that he refuses to change, ending his speech. Rather than stomp away in anger, Neil begins to understand Del's frustration and decides to stay. From this point forward, we completely believe in these guys sticking together. Thankfully, Hughes never takes a left turn towards the maudlin.
There are several big laughs in the movie, yet Hughes doesn't depend on the two leads to supply all of them. Along the way, they meet an assortment of oddball characters, many of whom threaten to steal their respective scenes. There's a grunting redneck called Owen, played by wonderful character actor Dylan Baker in his film debut. Michael McKean has a nice cameo as a cop who pulls over the duo for speeding in their rental car (or what's left of it). And Hughes requests the services of some of his regulars, including Edie McClurg as a daffy car rental agent and Ben Stein as an airport rep. Oh and yes, that is Kevin Bacon in a memorable scene near the beginning as the man Martin challenges to a race over a taxicab.
Still, this is really Martin and Candy's show, both offering up what may well be the finest performances of their careers. Candy especially exhibits a vulnerability and tenderness in which he had never tapped into before; it's no wonder Hughes loved him so much. The soliloquy he gives while sitting out in the car in the bitter cold is profoundly moving, no matter how many times you see it. As for Martin, it's remarkable to see him change from cold-hearted bastard to a man who sees the humanity in Candy's character. It's certainly not a Scrooge-like transformation, but it's driven in a completely realistic way, which is both refreshing and enlightening. Like all great movies, we come to like and care about these characters, and the final moments inside the Chicago train station and at Martin's house are played so beautifully they may just bring a tear to your eye.
Paramount originally released Planes, Trains and Automobiles on DVD back in 2000 with middling results. Not only was the disc bare-bones, but the anamorphic image was extremely dirty, with smudges and grain galore. The transfer on this new edition is a huge improvement, with sharp black levels, terrific flesh tones, and very bright colors. Everything has been cleaned up for a sweet image. Even with a slight softness, it still looks like it could have been shot today. On the audio front, the remastered 5.1 surround track bolsters Ira Newborn's unusual but amusing score and songs like "Mess Around" (by Ray Charles) and "Everytime You Go Away" (by Blue Room), all sounding better than ever. Environmental and highway noise are natural and uncompromised. An alternate 2.0 Spanish Mono track is also provided. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish. For once, Paramount has done right and given this film a superb A/V upgrade.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, Paramount seems to have dropped the ball, when it comes to this disc's bonus features—three featurettes and a deleted scene. The real meat is found in the 17-minute "Getting There Is Half The Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains and Automobiles." This is a mixture of archival footage and newly-recorded interviews with McKean, McClurg, executive producer Neil Machlis, and the casting directors. Among other things, McKean talks about how his part was originally longer and his reasons for stopping Del and Neil were changed.
In the archives, we get comments from the director and both stars, from the set of the rental car agency. There's no moderator, the questions coming solely from the press. It's a rather uneven affair, but cool to see Hughes, Martin, and Candy together talking about the film. Personally, I would have liked the 1987 interview to be uncut and serve as a stand-alone feature. Preferences aside, where is Steve Martin? He's always considered this the favorite of all his films, and his presence would have made all the difference.
The two other featurettes are quite brief—one honoring John Candy, the other discussing Hughes' direction towards adult-oriented fare. As for the deleted scene ("Airplane Food"), it runs 3.5 minutes and frequently appears in television broadcasts. It's a funny little scene, but also somewhat of a tease, since it's been rumored for years that Hughes' original cut was over three hours. Some sources suggest that Hughes removed all of the unused footage from the Paramount vaults years ago. Regardless, with the lack of additional footage and Martin being MIA, this new "Those Aren't Pillows!" edition feels rather hollow.
Considering the excellent A/V quality, this release is definitely worth the upgrade, even if the extras are not up to snuff. Of course, its pure conjecture if Paramount is saving the unused footage for a Blu-ray release. Only time will tell.
Del and Neil are free to go and have their Turkey. This is one of the all-time great comedies, and thus found not guilty.
R.I.P. John Hughes
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