Planes, Trains and Automobiles

December 22, 2021

John Hughes has absorbed some criticism for repeatedly tapping the teen-movie market, with such hits as Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Never mind that these are easily among the better teen films of recent years: When was Hughes going to make a movie with, and for, grown-ups?

The prolific Hughes answers the call with Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Actually, he made a movie called She’s Having a Baby before Planes, but that film won’t be out until February, for some reason.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles will do nicely in the meantime. It’s a frequently uproarious comedy, with a deceptively simple comic spine: Harried, buttoned-down ad man Neal Page (Steve Martin) just wants to get home from New York to Chicago. Thanksgiving is two days away.

When his plane is rerouted to Wichita and he can’t find another flight before the holiday, it’s not the end of the world. However, the end of the world may well be present in the form of Del Griffith (John Candy), a self-proclaimed “annoying blabbermouth,” who sells shower-curtain rings for a living and can’t seem to get enough of Neal’s company.

Actually, both men simply find themselves in the same boat. Or, more appropriately, in the same bus, train, rental car, truck, and motel room. As behaviorally disparate as they are, it behooves them to stick together as they struggle toward the Windy City, even as one disaster follows another.

Hughes has constructed the ultimate travel nightmare, in which absolutely everything goes wrong. Even when they do find a motel room in sold-out Wichita, Del and Neal must share the same bed. But then Del uses all the towels. And turns on the bed’s Magic Fingers. Which shakes up the beer and gets the bed wet. Then Del must go through a series of nerve-shredding sinus-clearing and finger-cracking exercises.

That’s just the first stop. Hughes has more torture in store, and almost all of it is funny. Throughout the film, Martin is the straight man, reacting to Candy’s outrageousness, and both actors fulfill their functions superbly. They’re seasoned pros, adept at physical humor, timing, inflection. They’re bouncing off each other for virtually every moment of screen time, but Candy always finds new ways of oozing unctuous jolliness, and Martin always finds new ways to burn.

Hughes has a good eye for the paraphernalia of traveling, such as those mysterious Magic Fingers, the little airplane bottles of booze, and the unendurable sing-alongs on buses. The movie falters only when it gets soft; every time Hughes seems set to soar off into manic nastiness, he’ll have a scene where Neal starts to feel bad about berating poor Del. The sentimental ending, however, works rather better.

There’s enough good stuff here to carry the film well past Thanksgiving, into our other imminent holiday. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a smooth entertainment, and as far as John Hughes’ entry into grown-up filmmaking is concerned, it’s just the ticket.

First published in The Herald, November 1987

I think it is safe to say the movie became a classic. Apparently there was a much longer version, which got cut back down to 93 minutes. The last time I saw it, the schmaltzy stuff seemed as sentimental as ever, including the ending. You could see the Hughes mojo dissolving in all that.

Uncle Buck

May 27, 2021

When comic John Candy and director John Hughes got together for Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the result was one of the funniest films of the last couple of years. Hughes seemed to understand Candy’s comedic strengths, on ample display in other films and on SCTV, and the giant actor was in his element. (Having Steve Martin as a straight man probably helped.)

Hughes subsequently wrote another film for Candy, The Great Outdoors, but he didn’t direct it and the movie was flat. Uncle Buck is Hughes’ tailor-made gift to Candy, yet this film still doesn’t do justice to the big man’s talents. It’s a collection of bathroom jokes and stilted sentiment.

Candy plays a 40-year-old bachelor who never managed to grow up or settle down. His girlfriend (Amy Madigan) wants to get married, but Buck is skittish. Then his brother asks him to look after the brother’s three children during a family crisis, and Buck is suddenly house-sitting the younger generation.

This premise would seem to hold comic opportunities, but aside from the occasional one-liner (Buck assures his sister-in-law that the family dog is getting enough water; he’s been leaving the toilet seats up), the humor is lame. Buck’s crudeness is supposed to upset the children, but Hughes is too interested in the sentimental side of the story to really let Buck get outrageous. So the character remains big and bland.

Buck’s main problem is his dreadful 15-year-old niece (Jean Kelly), who hates the fact that he has a monogrammed bowling ball and makes his living at the racetrack. Hughes lets her be just mean enough to inspire the audience’s hissing, then does an about-face toward the end and draws her back into the fold. It’s by the numbers.

And so, as with most reviews of John Candy films, this one will end by asking the question: Who will make a good movie with this man?

First published in The Herald, August 19, 1989

I call the movie a gift for Candy, but according to IMDb, the role was offered (or at least considered for) a bunch of different people. I guess the toilet joke was … one of the good ones? The kids in the film were Macaulay Culkin, one year shy of Home Alone, and Gaby Hoffman. Laurie Metcalf is in the cast, too. As you can see, I was bummed by this movie, because Hughes had made some funny things and Candy, as anybody who loved SCTV knew, was a glorious talent.

The Great Outdoors

March 14, 2013

Great OutdoorsTwo brothers-in-law sit on the deck of a vacation hideaway, gazing out over the serene lake in front of them. One is content to enjoy the trees on the other side, but the other has a different idea: He takes one look at all of that unused space and has a grand vision for a toxic dump for medical refuse.

These two guys aren’t going to get along at all, which is the operating idea behind The Great Outdoors, yet another comedy from the pen of John Hughes. Here Hughes reworks some of the chemistry from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which straight-laced Steve Martin was terrorized by geeky John Candy.

In The Great Outdoors, Candy is back, but this time as the straight man. He plays an ordinary businessman who takes his wife (Stephanie Faracy) and two sons up to the lake cabin for a week of peace. There’s a surprise waiting for him: the crazed, crass brother-in-law (Dan Aykroyd), who’s brought his wife (Annette Bening) and spooky twin daughters up unannounced for the week.

Hughes’ script allows these two to lock horns over most of the familiar outdoorsy situations that are liable to confront the urban adventurer: water-skiing technique, fishing, a battle with a bat (“radar-guided vermin” in Aykroyd’s vernacular), and the ultimate test of camping manhood, the proper way to build a fire.

Howard Deutch directs these almost elderly jokes. He also directed Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, two other Hughes scripts. Deutch’s main task is to set the two comic actors up and allow them some room, which is does passably. As for the subplot with Candy’s son (Chris Young) romancing a comely local (Lucy Deakins), it is a completely separate sidebar.

Deutch and Hughes have a curious tendency to kill a comic sequence before it’s over. The set-up is there, the joke is delivered, and poof. On to the next gag. You almost get the feeling that these jokes are so well-worn, Deutch and Hughes are content to let the audience complete the missing material.

The Great Outdoors doesn’t approach the inspired high points of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and the final 30 minutes or so of resolution are particularly half-hearted. Candy is perfectly okay as the laid-back family man, and Aykroyd does have a few amusingly grotesque moments, though his performance is something of a rehash of his role in Neighbors, in which he played that nightmarish figure, the friendly next-door neighbor.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

Huh–the review seems to be missing an ending. I forgot Bening was in this thing—it was her first big-screen job. The movie’s really dead in the water, a real dud after the first two Hughes-Deutch successes.

She’s Having a Baby

October 17, 2012

No, She’s Having a Baby isn’t a cash-in on the sudden popularity of such boffo baby movies as Three Men and a Baby and Baby Boom. Actually, this movie was made about a year ago and originally advertised for release last summer

However, writer-director John Hughes got caught up in the making of his subsequent film, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which needed to be completed in time for a Thanksgiving release date. So She’s Having a Baby was put off until now, though the postponement prompted rumors of a bomb in the making.

The rumors were unwarranted; She’s Having a Baby is much in the Hughesian vein, which means it’s an amusing, observant, slickly enjoyable movie. This one is, by all accounts, a largely autobiographical film, a reflection of Hughes’ own life as a young married ad man who yearns to be a real writer.

Hughes’ alter ego, Jefferson Briggs (Kevin Bacon), narrates his own story, beginning with his marriage to his high school sweetheart, Kristy (Elizabeth McGovern). His best friend (Alec Baldwin) resents the marriage with rather mysterious forcefulness.

Over the next few years, Briggs puts aside the Great American Novel and takes a job at a Chicago advertising agency in order to support his household (located in a suburbia that seems to be throwing an eternal backyard barbecue). Hughes sketches this life with some authority, having lived much the same existence in the years before he entered filmmaking.

Briggs is tantalized by his friend’s tales of the glamorous life in New York City; and he’s intrigued by a gorgeous, available woman (Isabel Lorca) who keeps bumping into him. Hughes manages to get some admirable freshness into this familiar material, even punctuating the movie with surreal touches—for example when the galloping conformity of suburbia breaks out into a synchronized dance on the front lawns, in which wives pirouette with lemonade and hubbies step-kick with their power mowers.

The baby-making takes up the last third of the movie, up to and including the teary conclusion. The couple’s determined attempts to produce culminate in a session in which the exhausted Briggs goes to duty to the strains of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” (one of Hughes’ typically blunt musical cues).

Though this film is enjoyable in many ways, there is the nagging sense that Hughes too often falls prey to the facility of the advertising images, much like his protagonist. There are too many emotional shortcuts, as though Hughes is unwilling to scratch the surface he has fashioned.

It’s an attractive surface, nevertheless, and incidentally provides Bacon and McGovern with their best film work in a few years.

First published in the Herald, February 1988

I seem to have enjoyed it. Bacon, McGovern, Hughes…it all seems like a different world now, doesn’t it?

National Lampoon’s Vacation

August 8, 2012

This Vacation is a pretty tame vehicle for Chevy Chase, with only a few utterly gross and tasteless gags to liven up the general dreariness. One of the best—and most extended—of them has Chevy’s family (en route from Chicago to wonderful WalleyWorld in Los Angeles) dropping in on some severely inbred cousins somewhere in the Midwest. Randy Quaid invests his best grungy slobbiness into the father (Brother? Uncle? Yucch!) of the clan, amid many one-liners about kissin’ cousins (the young actors who play his mutant offspring are truly frightening-looking).

Chase retains his sense of comedic timing, and Beverly D’Angelo, as his wife, has a charming presence. She is, I’m afraid, the victim of two of the most absurdly gratuitous excuses to get the leading lady buck-naked in recent screen memory: the first is a pathetic Psycho shower-scene thing that goes nowhere; the second is her skinny-dipping response to hubby’s late-night rumba with a gorgeous young vixen in the swimming pool of the local No-Tell Motel (a response that makes absolutely no sense based on what has come before). Poor Beverly. Things really must be bad for actresses in Hollywood.

The gorgeous young vixen is played by Christie Brinkley, a model and, for years, Bunsen Burner to American Malehood as the swimsuit girl in Sports Illustrated‘s annual libido issue. Hate to say it, fellas, but the truth must be told. She’s terrible.

First published in The Informer, August 1983

The movie hit people of a certain age just right, and there was that scene of Chase falling asleep at the wheel and just driving along blissfully, which had a certain surrealist commitment. At least I think that was in this one.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

December 23, 2011

In time, it seems, everyone goes soft. Even Chevy Chase. Who would have thought that the smirking smartass of the original “Saturday Night Live” crew would eventually go all gooey and squishy on us?

But it has happened. In Chase’s new film, the story of which he developed with screenwriter John Hughes, there has been a decided shift toward the sentimental. Whereas the original National Lampoon’s Vacation was cruelly funny (for instance, the family dog was tied temporarily to the rear bumper of the car, then remembered about 50 miles later), the new one, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, is soft at its center.

Oh, another house pet gets killed (the cat chews a bit too lustily at the lights around the tree), but this is minor gratification. While it catalogs the terrors of a Christmas vacation, spent at home with a large family, the film also aims in the direction of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s not a good blend.

Some of the early going, in which it is established again that Clark Griswold (Chase) is the most hapless buffoon in America, is mildly amusing. When Clark attempts to string up 20,000 Christmas lights around the house, Chase gets to do some of his patented physical comedy.

Even then, there’s no sense of how to build a silent comic sequence. Doesn’t anybody know how to do this anymore? (The film is preceded by a short that salutes the 50th anniversary of Bugs Bunny—three minutes containing more well-executed gags than in the entire running time of Christmas Vacation.)

After that, the movie draws humor from the onslaught of relatives. Included is the moronic and severely inbred cousin from the original Vacation, again played by Randy Quaid. Quaid stays true to the utter grossness of his character, and thus is a welcome presence. The veteran character actors who play members of Griswold’s family have little to do, except endure jokes about their bodily functions and bad toupees; once again, that lovely actress Beverly D’Angelo is wasted as Clark’s wife.

In the end, Clark discovers the true meaning of Christmas. Everything ends, amazingly, with hugs and kisses and warm yuletide feelings. (Except for the cat, who simply ends up warm.) Some people could pull this off, but Chevy Chase was funnier as a smartass.

First published in the Herald, December 1, 1989

And it’s a kind of Christmas classic for some, which I guess proves the effect of countless cable-TV iterations upon the human mind. Despite all this, happy holidays.

Some Kind of Wonderful

May 13, 2011
Stoltz and Masterson, pretending

There’s no way Some Kind of Wonderful should work. Isn’t this tale of a misfit student infatuated with the prettiest girl in school while his true love waits on the sidelines just a gender-reversal of last year’s Pretty in Pink? And hasn’t the high-school well run dry yet for the prolific producer John Hughes , the teen-film potentate (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)?

Hughes would seem to be repeating himself here, by pulling the sex-switch on this Pretty in Pink script and hiring the same director, Howard Deutch.

By rights, all of that should make Some Kind of Wonderful a craven commercial effort, designed to repeat the success of Pretty in Pink. Well, commercial it may very well be. Enjoyable it definitely is.

The misfit in this case is a sensitive lad, a hopeful artist (Eric Stoltz, out from under his Mask makeup), basically an okay guy but shy enough for his sister to refer to him as “the human Tater-Tot.”

His confidante is a tomboy drummer (Mary Stuart Masterson), with whom he maintains a close but unromantic friendship. His dream is the school’s most popular girl (Lea Thompson, recovering prettily from Howard the Duck), but she, of course, is hooked with the school’s swaggering jock (Craig Sheffer, perfectly embodying every bully who ever drove you nuts).

The film isn’t five minutes old before we know that Stoltz will have to work through his crush on Thompson in order to discover his true affection for Masterson. And Hughes is starting to run out of ideas for this milieu; the villains, for instance, are stock, without any memorable traits.

Okay, fine. But Hughes’ dialogue and the agility of the actors is enough to distract from the blueprint nature of the thing.

And there are a couple of scenes that take off. Stoltz, trapped in detention, sketches in his notebook, which inspires the punked-out lunk across the aisle to respond with some art of his own. Holding up a drawing of a skull with eyes, the hulk suggests, with disarmingly cheery innocence, “That’s what my girlfriend would look like without skin.”

And there’s a nice version of the beginning-to-see-the-light scene, when Masterson helps Stoltz prep for a possible kiss with Thompson, by acting the role of the latter. The “pretend” kiss between Masterson and Stoltz, held just a moment longer than necessary, has her beating a hurried retreat. “Lesson’s over. You’re cool,” she sputters, barely keeping her awakened hormones in check.

All the actors are good to watch, but Mary Stuart Masterson steals the show. (She’s got the spiciest dialogue, too.) She was previously good as Sean Penn’s girlfriend in the little-seen At Close Range.

Masterson seems to have exceptional range herself. She has a way of swallowing the big emotional moments, only just letting them peek through, that feels utterly honest. When she sits on the hood of a car, shivering with anger and frustration and hurt over Stoltz’ success with Thompson, I get the distinct sense that a mature actress is being born.

I don’t know whether she’ll turn into a conventional leading lady—she looks too short and small-featured for that, somehow—but it’s a career worth following, and Some Kind of Wonderful is a painless place to start.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

Masterson never did turn into a conventional leading lady, but she did a lot of fine work. The rest of the review sounds about right to me—this movie should have suffered from the law of diminishing returns, yet did some pleasant things anyway. For John Hughes, the teen genre was about played out, and other projects (not really better projects) beckoned.