With the exception of outright Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker-style gagfests—a lost art, judging from reviews for the likes of Date Movie and Vampires Suck—Hollywood comedies like to throw in a dash of pathos, see if they can’t make you care a little about the clowns onscreen. It’s a tactic that goes back at least as far as Chaplin, and it can come across as either unexpectedly heartrending (City Lights being the archetypal example) or cheaply pandering (way too many offenders to pick just one). In the latter case, the protagonist has generally been allotted some shallow life lesson to learn, perhaps involving a revelation about What’s Truly Important, and we get a single maudlin, sore-thumb homily right at the end that finally drives that lesson home, as the audience collectively rolls its eyes and waits to see whether or not there’ll be a good deflating one-liner. When we’re actually moved, it’s because moments of genuine emotional candor have been carefully interwoven throughout the entire film, providing the jokes with ballast and keeping us slightly off guard.
In Planes, Trains & Automobiles, John Hughes pulls off one of the most ambitious gambits of this sort I can recall—a scene so indelible that it threatens to permanently yank the movie off its axis. His previous film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, had squandered a big chunk of its third act on Cameron’s daddy issues (“Who do you love? You love a car!”), and perhaps Hughes recognized that the intensity feels grafted on, just a way station en route to Ferris’ frantic race back home. Planes, Trains & Automobiles is even more broadly yuk-heavy, with Steve Martin using John Candy’s underwear as a washcloth and both of them screaming in unison as they realize they’re driving on the wrong side of the highway, but Hughes nonetheless wants us to see these two bickering travelers as human beings, not merely as punchline factories. When the two are forced to share a hotel room after their flight is cancelled, they do the expected odd-couple routine for a while, with Candy scoring laughs via endless exaggerated throat-clearing. Then shit suddenly gets kinda real.
Bear in mind, this scene takes place only about 20 minutes into the movie. The central comic rhythm between Martin and Candy has barely been established—one’s obliviously irritating, the other icily suffers, that’s about it so far. Hell, Judd Apatow would still be introducing new major characters at this point. To ask the audience of a big mainstream comedy to empathize with this much sincere pain right out of the gate is almost unprecedented. If you watched the scene in isolation, not knowing anything about the movie (and omitting the part where Martin softens and gets back into bed), you’d naturally assume either that this is the last-straw schism leading into the third-act reconciliation (with optional musical montage of both characters apart, looking miserable in their angry solitude), or that you’re watching a different kind of movie entirely—something like Jerry Maguire or Broadcast News, maybe, that gets filed in the comedy section at the last few remaining video stores, but is really fundamentally a drama with a humorous streak.
(In fact, at the risk of looking very stupid, I’ll make a wager. Poking around on YouTube while writing this piece, I stumbled onto a re-enactment of the scene in an episode of Family Guy, with Peter reciting Candy’s speech almost verbatim, even down to the little hiccup on “I like—I like me.” I haven’t seen this episode, don’t know anything about it, but I’d still be willing to bet that this bit is in the episode’s second half, not its first. And we’re talking about a show with a narrative so random that South Park built two episodes around ridiculing its penchant for just tossing in pop-culture jokes at random. Let me know if I’m wrong.)
The most extraordinary thing Hughes does here is to abruptly turn what had been a feisty argument between two equals into a truly vicious monologue, letting Martin spew bile for a minute-and-a-half straight (which doesn’t sound like that long on paper, but feels epic onscreen) while Candy reacts only by letting his face fall further and further, too wounded to fight back. And we’re right there with Candy, because his silent reaction acknowledges a very simple truth, rarely addressed even in serious movies: There’s almost nothing more hurtful than being told that you’re boring. That’s not an attack on a bad habit you could potentially change, as with the insults being hurled earlier at the outset: You’re a slob, you’re intolerant, you’re a moocher, you’re a jackass. That kind of thing can be shrugged off. “Nothing you say remotely interests me” dismisses literally everything you are. (I flashed just now on a devastating couplet from Liz Phair’s “Divorce Song”: “And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead/But if you’re tired of looking at my face I guess I already am.”) Candy was an effortlessly funny actor, but it’s regrettable that he wasn’t given more opportunities to tackle meatier material; every cut to his stricken expression during Martin’s tirade is like a dagger to the heart, in large part because he does so little.
Here’s the corker, though: We’re right there with Martin, too, 110 percent. Hughes gives him the speech we’ve all longed to unleash upon someone who just will not fucking shut up; I’ve spent the last 24 years struggling not to tell various people, “Everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate.” (I long to say this about some entire feature-length documentaries, too, and occasionally have.) And Martin rips into it with a relish that could perhaps only be summoned by a huge celebrity—someone forced on a daily basis to interact politely with total strangers who want to yak his ear off. Without Candy’s reaction shots, we’d be cheering this guy on, and even with the reaction shots we still can’t help but laugh. (Interestingly, the Chatty Cathy routine kills even if you’ve never encountered the actual toy, which is true of pretty much everyone under 50; it was manufactured from 1959 to 1965. Do pull-string dolls even exist anymore? I assume nowadays kids push a button to activate a microchip.) The scene asks us to identify with both men simultaneously, even though one is sheer aggression and the other a passive punching bag—a degree of emotional complexity that most Hollywood comedies can’t manage by the finale, much less at the outset.
Candy’s eventual response, unfortunately, gets undermined somewhat by the sappy musical cue that wells up underneath it—a reminder that we are in fact watching a John Hughes movie, not a Cassavetes meltdown. Candy manages to sell it with his performance (and with that quick shot of him hurriedly flipping back over after Martin catches him checking for a reaction), and you could argue that it’s a necessary mood-lifter given that the “those aren’t pillows!” gutbuster is right around the corner. But the sudden synth-laden insistence on how we should be responding still induces whiplash, and I’ve always wondered how the scene would play with the score removed. Or if Martin didn’t instantly look regretful, shoving us firmly to Candy’s side. The rest of the movie is good fun, always welcome, but for a few brief moments it seems as if it could have gone in a radically different direction, one 180-degree turn from where Hughes would subsequently head with films like Uncle Buck, Home Alone and Curly Sue. Granted, She’s Having a Baby—his one attempt at an adult drama—didn’t really work, but had he kept trying, who knows what he might have achieved? I feel like we catch a brief glimpse here of an amazing filmmaker who never quite existed.