When I was a kid, this was a big family favorite.
It was one of those rare times when profanity got a pass.
That second time Steve Martin goes off…on Edie McClurg (the rental car lady).
But even funnier is the first time Martin pops off…in the Braidwood Motel in Wichita, Kansas…and John Candy just takes it.
Yes, there are some priceless moments in this film.
In some ways, this film defined an era.
Trading Places was an early-decade success (1983) for John Landis.
And then Walter Hill succeeded with a similar type of story, treated in his inimitable way, in 1985 (Brewster’s Millions).
But by 1987 the decade needed summation…and this particular genre which transcended classification needed a testament.
This is that film.
Funny enough, this was the same year the Coen brothers really started hitting ’em out of the park (Raising Arizona). That film also is a veritable classic, but it is forward-looking. It is almost like comedy in the hands of a David Lynch.
John Hughes was seemingly retrospective with Planes, Trains and Automobiles…like the J.S. Bach of the 1980s…summing up a decade of dirigist American comedy.
Hughes had a lot of career left to go in 1987, but this was a sort of highpoint…especially if considering only his directorial efforts.
Sure…Hughes was more counterculture earlier in the decade, but he wasn’t above putting his heart into a morality play like this one.
But to paint this film as a vanilla affair is not really accurate.
Consider Steve Martin’s yuppie character…a “marketing” professional on a business trip to New York from Chicago.
Martin’s character represents everything that was wrong with America in the 1980s.
Sadly, Neal Page (Martin) represents the problem which persists in America today.
Perhaps Isidore Isou’s famous class distinction fits here.
Neal Page, marketing professional, is an intern (as opposed to externe)…a cog in the wheel of production.
The Neal Pages of today would learn their marketing from an abomination such as Marian Burk Wood’s The Marketing Plan Handbook.
The Neal Pages of corporate America read a Wood phrase such as, “For the purposes of developing a marketing plan, advertising’s two basic decisions concern the message (what content will be communicated) and the media…,” without ever thinking Marshall McLuhan.
A savvy seller of used books might file The World is Flat in “Sociology” (in addition to the more strictly-applicable “Business”) in an effort to unload what must surely be one of the most overprinted books of recent memory.
But what bookseller ever thinks to place Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) in the “Business” section…or in the Marketing/Advertising “disciplines”?
Marketers, no doubt, would have a glib answer.
But marketers rarely know more than their insular, myopic areas of pseudo-specialty.
The “right” answer…the culturally literate answer…the answer Marian Burk Wood was either too dumb to include…or too convinced that her dumbed-down readers would not get…is McLuhan’s:
“…the medium is the message.”
The first sentence of the fucking book!
Chapter 1 (also, conveniently titled, The Medium Is The Message):
“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”
But the character Neal Page wouldn’t have known that…and that’s why he gets “schooled” in business by the portly, genuine Del Griffith (John Candy).
Of course, Candy’s character wouldn’t have known this either…but at least he wouldn’t have been a venal, meretricious, entitled prick like Neal Page.
And so Neal Page didn’t really go the extra mile in business school… He just took all the bullshit shoveled down his throat as gospel truth.
Therefore, Page wouldn’t have known this gem either…a parallel to McCluhan from just three years later (1967).
Again, the first fucking sentence of the book:
“The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”
Ok, so I gave him two sentences. Those are the words of Guy Debord from his masterpiece La société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle) [translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith].
Notice the similarities to McCluhan.
But, of course, Debord was referencing the big daddy of them all:
“The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’…”
Karl Marx. Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (1867). Translated by Ben Fowkes.
And so today’s marketing professionals are either brain-dead (thanks to authors like Wood) or craven cynics thanks to equally worthless authors such as Philip Kotler and Kevin Lane Keller.
These last two have contributed a tome to the pseudo-discipline of “marketing” entitled A Framework for Marketing Management.
If anything has ever called for the revocation of tenure, it is the appalling lack of intellectual curiosity these two professors (from Northwestern and Dartmouth, respectively) show over the course of their overpriced bible for aspiring C-level automata.
Consider their statement, “…make low-profit customers more profitable or terminate them.” Now do you see why America has problems?
And again, “Spend proportionately more effort on the most valuable customers.”
Thank God for the Del Griffiths of this world.
People are not statistics to be terminated.
God bless John Candy and John Hughes for poignantly reminding us of the only true value in life.
Not to be “leveraged”.
Plain and simple.
As Del Griffith says, “What you see is what you get.”
THAT’S the marketing of the future!
And it can’t be contrived…
Ha, I did not expect you to tie marketing reads into one of our favorite family films. 🙂 We did not have Wood, but had to read Kotler. I like where you are going with this one. Thanks, Paul.
I always try to include a curve ball in my writing 🙂 Actually, I can’t help it. It’s a curse, really. But as Popeye said, “I yam what I yam.” 😉 –Paul
I love this film, I saw it 3 times now still love it. Nice review
Yes, it’s really good! Thank you 🙂 –Paul
Excellent Review Paul , I like your reference to Karl Marx good one , John Candy is excellent in this film and one of my Brother’s favourite films of all time very funny and so true to life that Martin’s character in the end warms to Candy a truly great piece of Cinema , thanks for reviewing it Hughes of course was vastly underated in my opinion. Laurence
Thank you so much Laurence! –Paul