Simply the best
20 May 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This is simply the greatest Humour movie ever.

Most people would call it a comedy, and boy it certainly is, but it is so much more than that. Sure, on the surface it is brilliant slapstick with scenes so hysterically funny they make you roll off your chair. If ever there was a laugh-aloud movie this is it, and it ranks right up there with classics like Blazing Saddles, Return of the Pink Panther and Monty Python's Holy Grail. Even if it didn't go any deeper than this, Steve Martin and John Candy perform a comic feat that wouldn't put Laurel and Hardy to shame.

But the strength of the movie is that just below this surface it plays out a very human drama. The two main characters, Neal Page (Steve Martin) and Dale Griffith (John Candy) are polar opposites. Neal is introvert, anal retentive, arrogant and ambitious, a typical stressed-out corporate middle-manager who works in New York away from his family in Chicago. Dale is a simple salesman, obese, extravert, uninhibited, a social animal with friends in every town. They find themselves bound together by fate on a journey from New York to Chicago two days before Thanksgiving where everything that can possibly go wrong does go wrong.

As you would expect, the involuntary close relation of such disparate characters initially causes massive friction. Neal can't stand Dale's physical presence nor his endless pointless chatter, Dale is not impressed by Neal's arrogant stiffness and his not-so-subtle attempts to get rid of him. Yet, they need each other to reach their objective and they know it. Some brilliant scenes play out this confrontation, but in the end they come to grudingly accept each other, and through their trials and tribulations on the road acceptance even grows into something resembling a budding respect. Steve Martin and John Candy are fantastic, their chemistry fuels the movie and raises it to a level well above standard comedy.

*************** Spoilers ahead *********************** But the film goes deeper yet. At the next level, there is underlying tragedy that both characters try to hide in their day to day existence. It turns out that Dale has lost his wife eight years before, and has in fact been wandering and travelling throughout the country without ever going back home. He is effectively homeless and lives in cheap hotels and motels out of a trunk (which by the way also acts as a very effective comic prop), but he never discloses this to Neal. His life contains a great emotional emptiness but he can't really face up to it and he pretends to be a happily married man. Neal, on the other hand, is so self-obsessed with his career that he sacrifices the love for his family to the point where his wife becomes mistrusting of what is going on. Here is a man who risks losing what really matters for the sake of shallow success. He vaguely understands that something is going wrong but can't get himself to admit it or even pause and think about it.

It is only when the two of them get paired up that they come to realise what is wrong with themselves. Dale is confronted with Neal's family life, a life that he himself so sorely misses, and Neal realises in the end that life is about more than himself and that other people do matter. At the conclusion of the film they come together and fulfill each other's needs, becoming whole in the process.

This is buddy movie/ road flick supreme. The tragedy underlying the superficial slapstick makes this film Humour with a Capital H, much more so than the great comedies I mentioned before. You will have to go back to the likes of Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton to find anything comparable.

However, and this is where the true greatness lies, in the final analysis this film is not about the drama of two different characters at all, but about the opposing forces struggling within each of us ourselves. We all have a Neal and a Dale side, apparent opposites that cannot exist together, but only by accepting this and giving both sides equal weight can we become whole human beings. The film shows that this may at first appear an impossible task, frought with risk and danger, but if we persevere it can be done, and the prize of healing ourselves is worth it.

Hilarious comedy, superb drama and ground truth - few movies would even dare to try and combine these themes. Planes, trains and automobiles does, and it succeeds brilliantly. Martin and Candy deliver stellar performances that work at all of these levels. Definitely one of the best movies ever, and vastly underrated.
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