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'Planes, Trains and Automobiles': Conveys Friendship
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
03:21PM / Thursday, November 05, 2020
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I wish that I were reviewing one of the several movies about this pox upon our house that are certain to be made when the horror is deep into our rearview mirror. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.
Contemplating director John Hughes' "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," a touchingly hilarious paean to friendship, I mentally glanced back for a second to Charlie Rose' interview of legendary architect Philip Johnson, then about 92. Still vital, vibrant and deep in requested commissions, he regaled Rose of his "secret" to success, longevity and happiness. But while applauding Johnson for his joie de vie, Rose couldn't help but ask how the celebrated builder reconciled life with all his old friends now gone. Not skipping a beat, Johnson glibly responded, "Oh, you make new friends."
Geez, that's cold, I thought … such pragmatism about so rare and invaluable a sentiment. How many truly close friends does one accumulate in life? Playmates are one thing, but I'm talking soul mates.
I miss Bob. I could call him late at night and randomly throw out a shared memory. He'd laugh. I'd laugh. All of it saying, you're here, I'm here, we acknowledge each other's lives. That'd be enough. We hang up, smiles on our faces
Oh, sometimes I blurt a cherished phrase to a total stranger, Holden Caulfield style, just to keep it alive a little longer, perhaps hoping to see if it might conjure some spirit. And while I understand why Johnson preferred not to dwell on such things, I don't know if life would mean as much to me without this dab of respectful melancholia that says, "I knew you, and I remember you."
What Hughes so passionately delves amidst the slapstick, cacophony and nutty incongruity of two vastly diverse men tossed into screwball circumstances is that, while you rarely make new friends in adulthood, if you do it is a blessing. This is a preciously eccentric buddy-buddy/road movie to beat the band, the jaunty, farcical momentum sneakily cloaking the mushiness men are so famous for avoiding like the dickens.
Hughes comically epitomizes the aversion in a scene where Steve Martin's Neal Page, a big deal exec, and John Candy's Del Griffith, a traveling shower curtain ring salesman, must share a motel bed. Waking up in an awkwardly compromising configuration, both men, visibly abashed, jump from the mattress and beat their chests in a show of machismo, with Neal almost instinctively asking, "You see that Bears game last week?"
"Helluva game, helluva game," Del answers in his most masculine voice.
The film is a crash course in acquaintanceship as Neal and Del, who, by chance necessity team up in New York in an attempt to get home to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving, their alternately wild and philosophically telling experiences taking place across the array of title conveyances.
The estimable catalog of hilarious memories worthy of recounting to grandchildren -- you know, the sort of calamities that aren't so funny when they're happening -- are accrued in but two days.
Attesting that friendship may only be second to romantic love in the realm of enigmatic human emotions, auteur Hughes mines a meaningful thought or two about its root essence, reverently recognizing beneath the hijinks the sacrifice, generosity and tolerance to achieve the real deal.
While Del is for the most part a convivial, meat-and-potatoes guy, albeit overly loquacious to Neal's dismay, our more buttoned-down traveler is, to coin a phrase, the proverbial pickle whose high school yearbook picture might have written beneath it, "Least likely to make a new friend."
Many of his strident invectives concerning Del's habits and demeanor take us aback in their harshness. But here's where our moviegoing idealism kicks in.
People rarely change their spots. You meet up for lunch with a friend who years ago bored you to death with her long, self-serving bubba meises (Yiddish for inconsequential stories), thinking maybe things have changed. But, after about only 7 1/2 minutes, how wrong you were.
But the movies, aside from the avant-garde stuff and some of the darker genres, most often encourage faith. Misers can become philanthropists, idiots become smart, and yes, even that stultifying bore you dreaded having lunch with can become fascinating. The right script can cure just about any human failing. All of which isn't that naïve if you consider that most of civilization's accomplishments begin with a vision. In the best-case scenario, the cinema is a vicarious conduit, like literature, just waiting for humankind to catch up with its dreams.
Thus, as we giddily witness the constantly at odds quarrelers slapdashedly navigate practically every mode of travel between New York and Chicago, what our inner goodness revels in most is the hope-inspired flowering of a friendship.
"Planes, Trains and Automobiles," rated R, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by John Hughes and stars Steve Martin, John Candy and Laila Robins. Running time: 93 minutes
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