I like “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, mostly. The characters are less compromised than they are in most similar comedies. There’s a bit of heart there, and a real edge to some scenes. The argument in the motel room stings, and that’s good– it makes their reconciliation later richer.
But there is the artistic disaster of the ending. Here’s what’s wrong with it:
First of all, and most importantly, John Hughes clobbers you over the head with the sentimentality of it all. The characters give each other long, meaningful looks, to make sure you get that this all means a lot to them. Neal’s wife is actually demeaned by it– she looks like a lapdog reveling in her own desire to longingly yearn for something yearnful. Nobody in the real world conveys how much something means to them like that, at least, not without making everyone around them cringe. When Neal and Del look at each other and Del looks at Neal’s wife, Laila, I do cringe.
Are audiences that dense that they don’t get that Laila’s happy he’s home, or that Del appreciates the welcome?
But let’s go back to the critical artistic failure in this sequence. Del, having finally delivered Neal to his Chicago home, bids him farewell at the train station, presumably ready to head off to his own home for the holiday. Having Neal gradually realize that Del doesn’t have a home is potentially clever, but it’s handled clumsily, partly due to the fact that Hughes didn’t intend for the film to end that way until most of it was already shot.
So Neal sits on the train making broad, obvious facial expressions, showing how he now regards Del’s disastrous intrusions with amusement, and then he realizes that Del doesn’t have a home to go to for Thanksgiving. It wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t necessary at all. Neal could simply have looked thoughtful and then headed back, and most of the audience would have got it, at least up until the point that he finds Del still sitting in the train station. Why? Why is he still there? Is he planning to sit there overnight? Is this what he did before he met Neal? (In the original screenplay, more sensibly, he follows Neal right up to his house.) Why is he not at least headed for a hotel, given that it is revealed that he doesn’t have a wife or a home.
The truth is Hughes couldn’t come up with a better solution to the problem of getting Del to Neal’s house for Thanksgiving so he could indulge in the rest of the smarmy, sentimental staring exchanges. Del is sitting there waiting for the script to take him away. Hughes didn’t think about what a real Del would be doing at that moment. At least, not after the earlier draft in which he follows Neal home.
Del immediately volunteers that his wife died years ago and he has no place to go: he becomes self-pitying, one of his most annoying characteristics. Nobody bothered to work this scene: Del caves in immediately. Come on, Hughes: you’re not even trying!
Neal’s question– what are you doing here– is almost romantic and sounds like it would have more resonance directed towards a woman. He could have said, “darling, what are you doing here?” with the same intonation.
It might have been more interesting if we were given to understand that Del will deny that he has no place to go and Neal will pretend he believes him but invite him over anyway, since it’s so late, and Del will “reluctantly” accept. The act of saving face is almost always believable. And Neal will diplomatically add, “you could stay the night– but I’m sure you’ll want to get back to your own family tomorrow so we won’t keep you.” And Del might have clued in that he can be aggravating and shouldn’t press his luck. And then Neal’s wife could bugger it all up by insisting Del stay longer, so he can resume destroying every vestige of order and comfort in Neal’s life.
Neal’s family– the actors– are clearly standing around waiting for lines when Neal and Del arrive at the house. Not one of them has anything to do, as expressed by the actors, except wait to say their lines. This is the sure sign of a weak director. Laila’s look towards Neal seems the product of severe heartburn or indigestion, but no, as I said, it’s the result of the actress not being aware of any existence outside of her role as adoring wife, the loving, indulgent, patient Madonna perhaps we all wish our wives had turned out to be. Was Hughes running out of ideas here? She greets Del and invites him to join them for meal and looks at Neal inquisitively and says, “is Del going home tonight? You’re not going home tonight are you, Del?– Why don’t you stay? We can give you the pull-out couch in the rec room.” Get practical. It wouldn’t have been has big and loud a message as her heartburn expression but it would have had far more impact because it would have been believable.
Instead, she just stares, like a lovelorn sheep. Not even the slightest irritation at Neal’s delay. Almost every wife will assume that no explanation will adequately account for a husband being home late on a holiday– there will be something to blame him for, even if, only a little. Did you really try to get the earliest flight? Why did it take you so long to drive from St. Louis to Chicago?
“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is a clumsy, sloppy film with numerous errors of continuity and location, which is not surprising for a young, commercial director. Hughes had directed several successful films before this one and– surprise– many of them have similar flaws, as when Ferris Bueller lends his girlfriend out to his buddy Cameron, or Andie chases Blane out into the parking lot, or when pretty well all the characters in “Breakfast Club” turn into emotional exhibitionists because, after all, they are needy adolescents (who look like they are in their 30’s, for the most part).