Movie of the Moment: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Note: Spoilers ahead - I may also take some of your enthusiasm away from this holiday classic.
How much do you remember about Planes, Trains, and Automobiles? You probably remember the various high points, the car catching on fire, the argument with the rental car agent, John Candy's Dell Griffith selling shower curtain rings as jewelry. I was the same way until this summer. Now I can't watch the movie without getting lost in the subplot that Dell is a widower.
It's completely shaded the movie for me. It's a messed up and unnecessary plot device. Not only that, it's cruel. There are subtle clues along the way. Dell's desire for human contact, noted by his gregarious need for conversation. The way he carries a framed picture of his wife with him everywhere. The conversations he carries on with her by himself. The pain and redirection when Steve Martin's Neil Page offers a toast "to growing old with the wives". Perhaps most telling is the offhand comment that "he hasn't been home in years". Telling, in that after you lose the person closest to you nothing ever feels like "home" again.
John Candy's mastery of the character notwithstanding, the movie misses an opportunity by using this development for a cheap emotional payoff. Candy provides empathy and depth, which is promptly wasted in an attempt to make the audience cry and be "thankful". I am talking, of course, about the reveal where we find out that, "hey, Dell is not a social misfit, he's a homeless guy with a dead family"; and ending where "I know what will fix Dell, let's invite him over to Neil's big house so that he can meet the in-laws and the three perfect kids."
Why include any of this at all? We've had fun up to now, why bring everyone down only to give it a resolution better suited for an ending of an episode of Growing Pains? To take a line for Neil earlier in the movie, have a point.
Life is never this simple. Look no further than the line where Dell tells Neil that his wife, Marie, has been gone for eight years. Eight years. Dell is functioning on multiple levels, but some of them are still deep in the grips of mourning. He's coping, but he's not really living. The notion that an awkward dinner with some guy he met at the airport is going to fix that is ludicrous, and Hollywood.
And trust me, that is going to be an incredibly awkward dinner. Don't believe me? You try bringing a homeless traveling salesman home to meet your in-laws. Two days late. After a series of phone calls where it sounds like you're making up stories so that you can carry-on a long distance love affair.
On the other side of the coin, Neil is now potentially realizing what a giant, superficial, asshole he's been most of his adult life. He's trying to do the "right" thing by checking the boxes of family and career success; making himself available for cross-country meeting, going to the kid's recitals, picking up the checks. Like Dell, he's functioning on multiple levels, but he's not really living.
I think the reason that all of this bothers me is that I've been both people. I am now Dell. I am in it, I am coping, but I am not yet living. I was Neil. I spent most of the past nine years on the road, trying to catch that proverbial "last flight home" so that I could be home with Melly. When you live your life like this one of the things that haunts you are all of the missed opportunities. All of the nights where you either spread yourself so thin that the times you were home you weren't present, or the the times where you stayed the night instead of coming back early. I spent 262 nights in hotels between 2008 and this July. That is 2/3 of a year where I wasn't home to say "goodnight". That does not include all of the early mornings and late nights where I had to get out of town or got home so late we didn't get to see each other. This haunts me, the same way that Neil's job will haunt him for the rest of his life after hearing Dell's story.
Now that I have sufficiently ruined Planes, Trains, and Automobiles for you, let me get started on A Christmas Story... but seriously, don't take your life for granted. If you are going to be in it, live it. Their whole ordeal could have been avoided by doing one of two things within the first five minutes: Neil could have spoken up during the BS meeting, something we are all guilty of, or he could have caught a later flight. In either case the ending is different. The lesson being don't try to straddle the fence and be all things to all people. Be present or don't be there at all. If you have a shitty flight, remember the story and forget about the turbulence.