Fatness and Class in Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987, dir. John Hughes)

I watched Planes, Trains & Automobiles for the first time ever this weekend; not only did it make me feel more confident in my decision to forego the trip from Chicago to New York and back for the holiday weekend, but it gave me a chance to take in one of the best beloved performances from fat character legend John Candy.  PT&A is a simple premise that spins wildly out of control: Neal Page (Steve Martin) is a marketing executive who is trying to get back home to Chicago from NYC on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.  He’s going to make a 6 pm flight, until things Go Awry, due in equal parts to bad luck and Del Griffith (John Candy), a bumbling shower curtain ring salesman.

Del embodies so many facets of an archetypal fat guy, watching this film made me wish I had a Bingo card with size-based stereotypes in the squares (coming soon from Panda Bear Shape Industries™).  He’s uncouth, messy, clumsy, and sponges off Neal.  He is frequently snacking and overburdened by materiality, specifically his massive trunk.  His wardrobe isn’t too loud on its own (except those pajamas), but he does tend to look unstylish and frumpy next to his traveling companion’s tailored grey business attire.

planes trains and automobiles, steve martin, neal page, john candy, del griffith

Despite these shortcomings, Del is also optimistic, friendly, and a savvy traveler.  The combination of wanting to help and having specialized knowledge ultimately make him indispensable to Neal, and thus does our thin, straight-laced protagonist gain a loose cannon fat best friend.

Both Neal and Del are straight white dudes, not uncommon for two main characters in a film from the US, but some of the tension between them lies in class (reflected in their differing body sizes).  Neal starts the film in an executive boardroom in midtown Manhattan, whereas Del is a travelling salesman.  Both men are shown to have strengths and faults due to their social standing.  Whereas Neal is shown to have a happy, stable home life and has the literal capital to fund most of their adventure, he is also judgmental and rude, angering people who would otherwise be able to help him.  Del is crude and graceless, but also charismatic, seemingly having friends all over the travel industry and getting an entire bus of strangers to participate in a sing-along.

I hope PT&A would be a very different movie if it were made today (and not made by John Hughes), in that I hope it would not be almost exclusively from Neal’s point of view.  It seems like a specifically 80s choice to assume that the audience would be able to identify an uptight, entitled yuppie whose blonde nuclear family is so pristine they might as well be shrink wrapped.  The story can easily be seen from Del’s point of view, as the film readily concedes in one of the best-acted, pivotal scenes in the film.

Having reached a breaking point, Neal rants at Del about his shortcomings, especially his tendency to tell boring stories.  Leading up to his speech, Del tells Neal that he’s “intolerant” and a “tight-ass.”  There are several closeups of Del’s reaction, a truly heartrending mix of indignance and hurt.  It’s unsurprising that this performance is often considered Candy’s best.  His simple, dignified response is the kind of thing I’d want in needlepoint over my front door: “…You think what you want about me, I’m not changing. I like me.”   Del even gets a stirring backup of Heartfelt Speech Synth Music, whereas Neal’s opening attack was strictly solo.  The camerawork, on the other hand, suggests that the audience identify more closely with Neal.  Their exchange is a series of angle and reverse-angle shots.  During the bulk of Neal’s monologue, the camera shows both men in medium close-up shots; eventually, the shots of Del are slightly closer, bringing into focus the pain and vulnerability in his eyes.  Having spoken his piece, Neal breaks this static stance and turns away from Del (and the camera), but Del remains in slightly zoomed in close-up when he begins his response.  During his speech, the camera repeats the pattern, but starts with a comparable close-up to Neal before progressing much more quickly to an extreme close-up of his face, full of shame and regret.  Del’s parting line allows him to move away from the camera into a full body shot, and back into bed, but Neal remains in closeup for another few shots, as he wordlessly shows his remorse and acceptance of Del by deciding to stay in their shared room for the rest of the night.  Visually, the scene is focused on Neal developing empathy for Del, even though Del’s self-defense and assertion of his dignity could have been just as compelling a focus for the scene.  But Neal has been designated as the character through whom the audience vicariously experiences the film, and Hughes has deemed in necessary for both Neal and the audience to be explicitly reminded by through a powerful speech that Del is a human being who deserves respect and compassion.  It’s truly an effective scene, but as a viewer who readily identifies with fat schlub characters, it’s unnerving to think about the necessity of the scene’s function.  Maybe I should keep a little speech like that in my wallet.

Ultimately, the film is about Neal’s emotional journey, both in travelling from his professional life to his family life (a few lines about neglecting his family in favor of work are shoehorned in here and there) and in coming to accept Del, despite his crass ways.  The movie climaxes with Neal’s return home, significantly, with Del in tow.  By the end of the film, Del has become singularly focused on getting Neal home in time for Thanksgiving dinner; after they arrive to Chicago, it is revealed that Del literally has nowhere to go, and sitting at the same L stop where Neal leaves him.  Neal’s newfound empathy clues him into this, and it is Neal’s choice to include him in a relationship with actual significance; otherwise, having helped Neal achieve his initial goal, Del’s function as a character in the story is complete.  For all we know, he would have sat at Van Buren and LaSalle indefinitely until another rich person in minor peril came along.  Even Del’s admission to Neal that he is a homeless widower doesn’t have the same build of energy as Neal’s reunion with his wife, who is barely a character; the hook of the song that’s playing is “Everytime you go away you take a piece of me with you,” seemingly the sentiment that Neal’s wife feels for him.  The last shot is of Del, smiling as he witnesses the reunion he has helped to bring about.

This is a film that gives us a fat character who is sweet, clever, and keenly aware of his self-worth, but ultimately less complete and presumably less relatable than the thinner, wealthier protagonist.  As is often the case with best friend characters, especially ones from marginalized groups, a character who is otherwise interesting and likable on their own is ultimately dependent on their usefulness to the main character.

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