I have a confession to make. When I called Planes, Trains and Automobiles the best film ever in the introduction to my Haney on the Train promotional video, I hadn’t seen the movie in years, if ever. But hey, I was aiming for irony, and you can at least assume any film staring John Candy will be up there in the pantheon. And I knew how it ended, with John Candy coming home with Steve Martin for Thanksgiving, but when I popped in the DVD the other night and watched how they got to that point, John Candy’s gaffs and one-liners along with Steve Martin’s expressions and explosions, left me in a lump of giggles there on the living-room floor.
For one, the film is a total bromance. Candy and Martin – Dell and Neal – bumble into each other in a series of fortuitous encounters brought on by plane-grounding snowfall. The New York on which the movie opens is a manic free-for-all of business suits trying to hail taxis beneath skyscrapers. Neal, with a flight to catch, finally secures a cab but Dell slips in and speeds away, initiating a tension that ratchets up as the impossibility of getting home to Chicago forces the two to sleep in the same hotel bed that night. They wake up spooning, Dell with his arms folded around Neal and Neal holding Dell’s hand. Like true homosocialists, the two men erupt out of bed shaking off their willies and changing the subject to football.
It’s Neal who has the most at stake in getting home as his beautiful wife and three lovely children await his arrival. But Neal – a shower curtain ring salesman – better knows the ins and outs of travel, knows the different means of transportation available, knows owners of motels with sons willing to drive them 40 miles in the bed of a hay-strewn pickup truck with rabid dogs when the temperature is 1 degree because “Trains don’t run outta Witchita lessen you a hog or cattle.” He’s also hiding the fact that his wife died 8 years earlier.
Even with all his expertise and optimism for finding a way home, Dell can’t win Neal over. Mainly because Dell can’t keep his mouth shut for even a second. At one point Neal lays into Dell’s constant blabbering with a diatribe so cutting and venomous and timeless that I have to quote the whole thing here:
You know everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle! Your stories have NONE of that. They’re not even amusing ACCIDENTALLY! “Honey, I’d like you to meet Del Griffith, he’s got some amusing anecodotes for you. Oh and here’s a gun so you can blow your brains out. You’ll thank me for it.” I could tolerate any insurance seminar. For days I could sit there and 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, “‘Cause I’ve been with Del Griffith. I can take ANYTHING.” You know what they’d say? They’d say, “I know what you mean. The shower curtain ring guy. Woah.” It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. I expect you have a little string on your chest, you know, that I pull out and have to snap back. Except I wouldn’t pull it out and snap it back – you would. Agh! Agh! Agh! Agh! And by the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea – have a POINT. It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener! (IMDB).
Ah. Planes, Trains and Automobiles at its best.
Though John Candy isn’t responsible for the travel delays, his annoying characteristics infuse the film with comedic conflict while giving Neal someone else with which to communicate on his calamitous journey. Flights get delayed, airless mess up tickets and bump passengers, trains break down, car rental companies can’t be relied on, their cars malfunction and their newfangled features cause more discomfort than convenience. Still, through all the mayhem destiny throws our duo together. At one point Neal tries to break up with Dell, dumping him in a diner, telling him they would benefit from attempting to travel alone. Dell storms away and Neal, his emotions a mixture of guilt and relief, hits another road block when the rental car company screws him over. After an f-bomb laden outburst in the terminal, he gets thrown to the curb by his testicles and, because their bromance is written in the stars, Dell swoops in with his own rental car and rescues Neal from getting his head bashed in by traffic or security in St. Louis.
Then Dell goofs and ends up going the wrong way down the interstate. After they get squeezed between two semis head-on, Dell takes on the guise of the devil and the car catches fire on the side of the road from his mis-flicked cigarette butt. All they can do is laugh maniacally at the conflagration. But when Dell admits to having pocketed Neal’s credit card, it’s over for good. Dell resigns to spend the night in the burnt out remains of the car outside the hotel room where Neal, who bartered with his expensive watch, lays lonely on the one of two twin beds.
Finally, two beds. A chance for a healthy male encounter, some real bonding time.
In a moment of pity Neal calls Dell inside and they get smashed on tiny liquor bottles and toast to the women they love. All they needed was alcoholic lubrication, the depths of despondency, and healthy distance from each other while they sleep.
In the morning the car still works – a charred remnant of their former passions, of the façade of normalcy in their homosocial relationship – and it’s somehow more functional stripped down to its essence of frame and engine.
They make it easy enough from there and say their goodbyes on the Blue Line platform in Chicago. But theirs is a true love. Neal turns around to find Dell alone in the train station and takes him in, a touching end to this bromantic comedy. And they even have Dell’s trunk to share, a burden to rear together, as they ascend the steps of Neal’s suburban Chicago home. Instead of fading out on Neal embracing his wife, the camera cuts to one final shot of Dell, a reminder of the baroque threesome in store this holiday season.
The film actually goes pretty light with the train scenes. The one long-distance train they get on breaks down on the track forcing the passengers – men, women, and children alike – to walk a mile to the interstate and hitch a ride from the truckers. And near the end of the film, the Chicago “L” pauses for a laughably long time while Neal and Dell manage their goodbyes.
The question remains, who would be the most obnoxious traveling companion: Dell, or Dean Morrearty?