Great Moments in Cinema: Planes, Trains & Automobiles

A word of warning before we begin: things are about to get schmaltzy here at Great Moments of Cinema, so if you’re one of those heartless cynical types who hates all that sappy emotional stuff, you might want to stop reading right now.  Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive right into this month’s column, in which I take a closer look at a great moment from director John Hughes classic Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987).

Uptight advertising executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) just wants to catch the 6:00 flight from New York to Chicago so he can spend Thanksgiving with his picture-perfect, somewhat underdeveloped family.  Standing in the way of this goal is Del Griffith (John Candy), an obnoxious but likable traveling salesman who specializes in shower curtain rings, and constantly talks about the wife he hasn’t seen in years.  At first, Neal wants nothing to do with the boorish but lovable Griffith, but as fate seems determined to keep throwing them together, he finally relents, and reluctantly accepts Del as his traveling companion.  After a series of hilarious and highly unlikely setbacks, the two finally reach Chicago, where they part ways.  But as Neal sits on the train and imagines the homecoming he will soon share with his loving family, he starts to think back on the adventure he just endured with Del, and he suddenly realizes that the perpetually optimistic salesman might not have been telling him the whole truth about the wife he left behind.

While it can be argued that John Hughes is somewhat overly praised by folks who grew up in the 80s, that argument falls apart when it comes to Planes, Trains & Automobiles.  It’s the one film in which Hughes managed to get everything right, and that includes the sappy and manipulative ending, which is the focus of this column.  For those who have never seen Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, consider this your obligatory spoiler alert.  During the film’s climax, when Neal is riding the train home, a sobering thought suddenly crosses his mind, and he returns to the station to find Del sitting there alone and dejected.  Del admits that his wife has been dead for seven years, and he is essentially homeless.  Much to Neal’s surprise, he has genuinely come to think of Del as a friend, and so he invites Del to join the Page family for Thanksgiving dinner.  As the two friends haul Del’s massive steamer trunk up the stairs to Neal’s house, the music swells, and everyone lives happily ever after as the audience weeps tears of joy.  Roll credits.

The reason this sequence is so great is because it manages to work so well, despite the fact that it simply should not.  The whole climax of the film is emotionally manipulative almost to the point of being offensive, what with the touching song, the sad revelation, and the heartwarming yet melancholy ending in which everyone stands around and smiles at one another while Neal and his wife share a passionate and long overdue kiss.  The thing is, though, it all feels earned, thanks to everything that has come before, and thus the sequence is totally justified.  This is thanks in large part to the economy of the film.  With the possible exception of Neal Page’s family, Hughes gives the audience everything they need to know about the characters in a short amount of time.  Neal is a fussy but devoted family man, while Del is an overbearing but charming schlub, and both characters are wholly believable, thanks to the great script and great casting.  Thus, the audience not only gets to know both of these men during the course of the film’s brisk running time, but they come to actually like and sympathize with each of them.  That is why the happy ending doesn’t feel manipulative, even though it totally is.  Both of these guys deserve a happy ending, even one that is tinged by the heartbreaking revelation of the fate of Del’s wife, and the audience is relieved to see them finally get it.

There is a delicate balancing act in striking the right tone between bittersweet sentimentality and  emotionally manipulative schmaltz, and thankfully Hughes manages to keep things on the right side on this film.  His best films (Planes, Trains & Automobiles, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Uncle Buck) all manage to strike a chord with viewers because Hughes is able to make them touching and heartfelt while keeping them from devolving into pure sap.  However, with Planes, Trains & Automobiles, he is working on a completely different level.  It’s a film that somehow manages to feel grown up while still reveling in totally juvenile humor (see Steve Martin’s epic rant in the middle of the film for proof of that).  It could simply be the fact that the main characters are a pair of adult men, rather than the confused and horny teenagers Hughes normally trucks in, but there is more to it than that.  It feels as though Hughes was really trying to grow with this film, and that he genuinely had something to say about love and death and family.  It’s why this film works so much better than something like Curly Sue, which is the worst type of emotionally manipulative garbage.

A lot of film geeks like to complain about films that feature happy endings, and with good reason.  There are plenty of movies that tack on some sappy, sentimental ending that is designed to elicit a response from the viewer, but that is not in any way earned or justified.  It’s just a way of ensuring that the audience leaves feel good, and thus feeling positive about the movie they just saw.  Most of the time, people can see right through this, and that is just one of the reasons why it doesn’t work.  Every once in a while, though, a film like Planes, Trains & Automobiles comes along, and proves that there are exceptions to every rule.  The ending is just as sappy and sentimental as that of the worst Adam Sandler vehicle (think Click or Big Daddy), but the difference is that it is totally earned and wholly justified, and that is why it is a great moment in cinema.


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