Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Yosh Schmenge Meets the Jerk

Hollywood has traditionally given short shrift to Thanksgiving, preferring Christmas-themed movies. Recent movies such as the Ice Storm or the Myth of Fingerprints do use the November holiday as a plot point, and while these are both fine films, the only feelings of thanks they inspire is a sense of profound relief that our lives aren’t as dysfunctional as those depicted on the screen. But there is one movie that fits into the tradition of heart-warming holiday fare, featuring Capraesque characters who discover the true meaning of Thanksgiving after enduring a tumultuous journey: Planes, Trains and Automobiles. (PT&A)*

Since the movie is a staple on basic cable, I’ll assume that everyone here has seen it and won’t bore you with a summary of the story. Instead, I’ll bore you with my take of what makes this decidedly mainstream flick rise above the mass of mediocrity that Hollywood regularly churns out.

Director John Hughes ventures outside of his high school milieu for this film and proves equally adept at finding the heart-filled center of this rather broad adult comedy. One of Hughes’s strong suits is his ability to create multi-dimensional characters rather than merely falling back on stereotypical roles from which the obvious jokes can spew. In PT&A, he relies almost exclusively on the talents of Steve Martin (Neal Page) and John Candy (Del Griffith.)

Martin plays the straight man, the Schlimazel to Candy’s Schlemiel.** He pulls off the understated roll well, although he can’t seem to help but throw in some of his “wild and crazy guy” pantomimes on occasion. Martin basically does an extended slow burn that finally erupts at the car rental counter in St. Louis's Lambert Airport.

The profanity-laced verbal assault Neal Page fires at the hapless rental attendant is one of the film’s most memorable scenes. The reason that the scene works so well is that up to that point in the film, there hadn't been any profane language. Had Neal or any other character been dropping F-bombs from the start, the scene would have lost its shock value. This scene holds true to my theory that profanity works best when used sparingly. Profanity can be quite effective in punching up a joke or intimidating a rival, but with each utterance, its power to excite is diminished.***

It’s also interesting to note the class warfare that underscores this scene. Already enraged that he is kept waiting while the attendant talks on the phone to a relative, Neal is further incensed when she mentions that that her family will be having Ambrosia with Thanksgiving dinner. The mention of this Jell-O and miniature marshmallows concoction offends Neal’s more refined tastes and further lowers her standing in his estimation. It may seem that I am reaching in my analysis, but trust me; people have written dissertations on less than this.

For his part, Candy creates a tender, sensitive side to his buffoonish character. We’ve seen this before from Candy. His empathetic portrayal of a security guard confronted by a Magnum PI-wielding Clark Griswold stands as one of the most moving scenes in National Lampoon history. As Leutonian polka star Yosh Schmenge, Candy gave an emotional performance during a scene in which the adult males in his extended family exchange socks in a time-honored Christmas tradition.

It’s this ability to elicit compassion that drives the scene that serves as the movie’s emotional core and upon which the plot takes its most dramatic turn. When Del reveals through his self-debasing soliloquy that his beloved wife Marie is dead, we realize that the aggravation and torment being outwardly suffered by Neal is nothing compared to the pain and heartsickness that Del is suffering through behind his brash demeanor. When Del becomes aware of his companion's plight, the spirit of Thanksgiving is revealed to him.

Unlike typical Hughes films, there isn’t a lot in the way of secondary characters. Edie McClurg as the rental car attendant does her usual good work as a delightfully insufferable underling. Martin Ferrero's performance as the motel clerk recalls Brian Doyle Murray’s work in a similar role from Vacation (“We like to send out a mailer. Sphlttt”). Both are understated in their delivery and reveal an inner shyster, but Ferrero adds a measure of dreariness befitting the exhaustion felt by the lead characters towards the end of the film.

PT&A also doesn’t have a lot of imitable lines, but it has made a modest contribution to those of us who like to infuse our dialogue with pop culture references.

Although not a common water cooler occurrence, I can usually expect to hear a couple of impersonations of McClurg’s turkey call this time of year. I’m sure Lowe’s employees catch people holding shower rings up to their ears from time to time. And “My dogs are barking today” has found some favor with the foot weary.

But the movie's true legacy is a line that plays to the homophobia that exists in all heterosexual men (metros excluded.) Whenever two straight guys find suddenly themselves in an uncomfortably close position, there is a 93 percent chance that one of them will say: "See that Bear's game last week? Hell of a game."

Perhaps my favorite line in the movie is when Del and Neal are riding in the back of Owen’s pickup truck. Icicles forming beneath his nose, Neal asks Del what he thinks the temperature might be. Here, most screenwriters would have gone with a hyperbolic response (It has to be a hundred below!) or a jokey metaphor (It’s colder than a well digger's ass!) But instead, Del gives an honest and simple assessment of the situation and replies with a singular “One.” His abrupt response is both brutal and innocent. It sums up perfectly the opposing worldviews of Neal and Del at this point in the movie. And for some reason, I found this really funny.

Although I wouldn’t rank PT&A among the top 10 best comedies, when it plays on the USA network it is usually better than 99 percent of what is showing on the other channels at that time. And it’s certainly one of the best Thanksgiving-themed movies that Hollywood has given us.


*I’m a proponent of the serial, or Oxford, comma, but since the official movie poster dispenses with it, I’ll follow suit in this instance.

** Recognized by most gentiles as the opening words to the Laverne and Shirley theme, Schlemiel and Schlimazel are common characters in Yiddish folklore. In common terms, the schlemiel is a bumbling doofus and the schlimazel is a hard-luck type who usually bears the brunt of his associate’s bumblings.

*** I tried explaining this to Richard Pryor but he just wouldn’t listen.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dan,

I use several lines from PT&A quite often. My favorate, and also my favorite part of the movie, is , "YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!!!!!" "Hows he know where were going?" "YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!!!!!" "Yea buddy have another". I was laughing just typing this!

Also "THOSE AREN'T PILLOWS!!!"

Great lines ...GREAT MOVIE!!

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

I agree, the Wrong Way scene is one of the film's finer moments. I especially liked when Candy made the drinky-drinky motion followed by a lush face.

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