Down From the Shelf ~ Planes, Trains and Automobiles

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man must struggle to travel home for Thanksgiving with an obnoxious slob of a shower ring salesman his only companion.

Stars: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Michael McKean, Kevin Bacon, Ben Stein

Director: John Hughes

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

Original Release Date: November 25, 1987

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Here’s a movie I’m really, truly thankful for.  30 years (!!!) after its original release, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a gift that has kept on giving to countless people throughout the year but especially at Thanksgiving.  Writing this review in 2017 as I’m about to hit the road to celebrate the holiday with family, I knew I had to get my annual viewing of this one in a day before the big Turkey Day. Revisiting this one is like meeting up with an old friend who tells the same jokes but still delivers them with a master’s precision.

It’s two days before Thanksgiving and marketing exec Neal Page (Steven Martin, Parenthood) is rushing to catch an early flight home to Chicago to be with his family for the holiday.  If only he could make it to the airport.  In mid-day NYC rush hour traffic, he races for a cab with another big shot (Kevin Bacon in a cameo done as a favor to John Hughes right before they made She’s Having a Baby together), gets his cab stolen out from under him by an unseen man toting a large trunk with him, and arrives at the terminal to find his flight delayed.  That’s where he meets Del Griffith (John Candy, Splash), a portly shower ring salesman that turns out to be the cab thief.  When their plane is diverted to Kansas on account of the weather, Neal and Del become unlikely travel mates as they work together to get back to their families.

Hughes was on a real roll at this point, having just come off of directing back to back to back to back hits that have become seminal favorites (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) not to mention writing National Lampoon’s Vacation, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful.  This was his first movie to deal with real adults and it’s a marvelous pairing of a perfectly assembled cast with Hughes’ hilarious (if episodic) script.  There’s not a single boring moment in the movie, pretty remarkable considering how hard it is to sustain comedy for any length of time, let alone 92 minutes.

The movie is filled with classic scenes.  Martin and Candy waking up in their small hotel bed in an awkward embrace, Martin’s hysterically foul-mouthed run-in with a car rental agent (Edie McClurg, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), Candy driving cross-country and accidentally getting both of his arms stuck behind him while Martin sleeps, the list goes on.  Hughes is smart enough to have Del be the catalyst for a joke but not make him the ultimate target, to do that would be too cruel to be funny and that’s not what he’s interested in.

Martin is great as the tightly wound Neal who alternates between hating the schlubby Del and hating himself for the way he treats him.  It’s not hard to see why Neal gets so frustrated, either, because Del does himself no favors.  He’s a slob, he takes all the air out of any room he’s in, he doesn’t recognize normal social signals, and he has an uncanny way of destroying anything he touches.  Still, in Candy’s brilliant hands he’s a lovable dude and by the time the movie reaches its surprisingly emotional zenith, you’ll probably be like me and wiping tears away.  Oh yeah, I cry every time I watch the movie…I know I will and have accepted it at this point.

On a personal note, I can’t watch this movie without remembering my late father’s howling laugh when I first saw it.  I can still hear him roaring at Candy’s cluelessness and Martin’s slow-burn reactions.  This was a family favorite of ours and while my dad isn’t here to watch it with me, I think of him constantly when I put it on.  I watch a lot of movies and don’t always take the time to go back and rewatch many films…but there are exceptions and Planes, Trains and Automobiles is certainly one of them.

Down From the Shelf ~ Jumpin’ Jack Flash

The Facts:

Synopsis: A bank employee gets a coded message from an unknown source and becomes embroiled in an espionage ring.

Stars: Whoopi Goldberg, Stephen Collins, John Wood, Carol Kane, Annie Potts, Roscoe Lee Browne. Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Michael McKean, Tracey Ullman

Director: Penny Marshall

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Here’s an example of a movie I always remember being better than it is. Over the years I’ve returned often to this strange mix of comedy and intrigue with fond memories of fun only to wind up 106 minutes later wondering why I thought it was so great.  Don’t get me wrong, as a showcase for rising star Whoopi Goldberg, Jumpin’ Jack Flash is aces but considering the actress was coming off her Oscar-nominated breakthrough performance in The Color Purple and was several years away from winning her Oscar for Ghost one can’t help but see this as a minor blip on her way to the A-list.

You aren’t wrong in thinking the role of a lonely bank employee that gets roped into a real-life spy adventure is a strange fit for Goldberg.  Just like Sister Act was conceived as a vehicle for Bette Midler, Jumpin’ Jack Flash was intended for Shelley Long who opted for The Money Pit and Outrageous Fortune instead.  Aside from a few instances that were surely the result of Goldberg’s improvisation, the dialogue and overall plot seems generally unchanged from when it was Long’s…and that’s problematic.  With no discernible personality, Goldberg’s character (and the actress herself) struggles at the confines of a screenplay that often works against her more than it does her any real favors.

After original director Howard Zeiff was fired after a few weeks of filming, actress and first-time director Penny Marshall was brought in and that also doesn’t exactly help things.  While Marshall would go on to have several notable efforts like Big, A League of Their Own, and Awakenings, the rookie mistakes are evident.  Though it has comedy in fits and starts, the tone of the movie is all over the place.  One moment it’s an office comedy, then it’s an international thriller before getting Keystone Kop-y after Goldberg finds herself locked in a telephone booth tethered to the back of a tow truck.

With all these items in the minus column of my critical spreadsheet, why do I keep returning to this one?  Clearly, it’s Goldberg and it’s thanks to her the movie remains a rainy day option.  Managing to sell most of the malarkey dialogue she’s tasked with, Goldberg’s NYC vibe creeps in at opportune times.  I still get a kick out of her conning her way into a royal gala at the British embassy dressed as Diana Ross and lip-synching to one of the singer’s tunes.  While the telephone booth scene is quite screwball, listening to Goldberg riff on her situation provides some nice chuckles.  Let’s also give a hand for a fine supporting cast of familiar faces and a great big roll of the eyes at the ancient computer technology that at one time was cutting edge.

A hit at the box office, even if Jumpin’ Jack Flash is an interesting step in Goldberg’s ladder to stardom and hasn’t aged well at all it’s still better than Burglar, Fatal Beauty, and the string of other head-scratchers she appeared in the years after The Color Purple was released.