When you talk about comedy in the 1980’s the landscape seems defined by Saturday Night Live, and the work of John Hughes and the ZAZ team (Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker). Between Planes, Trains and Automobiles and The Naked Gun, you’re covering all three (in a way – Steve Martin never was a cast member on SNL, but is their most famous host, while John Candy was known for SCTV, but only hosted one episode). Both have come to Blu-ray exclusively at Best Buy. Our reviews of both follow after the jump.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles was part of John Hughes’s brief foray into pictures about adults (he retreated to pre-teen-centric films toward the end of his run). Briefly an empire unto himself – and known for churning out scripts in less than a week – Hughes had his fingers in a number of pies, and helped spawn the Vacation series and the rise of teen pictures in the 1980’s that weren’t just about T&A. With his recent passing, it’s fair to say that his legacy is both over- and underrated depending on who you talk to. No woman of a certain age didn’t grow up on his films, and that has made an impact, inarguably (Bridesmaids makes an homage to Sixteen Candles), but as a filmmaker, Hughes had his limitations, and his subject matter was never that profound. Hughes wrote what he knew and focused mainly on upper-class white people, which may be why his high school pictures are his best remembered.
PT&A stars Steve Martin as Neal Page, who’s looking to get out of New York and to Chicago for the holidays. The film shows him stuck in a boardroom, unable to speak up to leave. He rushes to catch a six PM flight, and has to fight to get a taxi, losing out to John Candy’s Del Griffith. Neal ends up at the airport on time, but his flight is delayed. And on the flight home he’s stuck next to Del. A snowstorm sends them to Kansas, and there the two have to find a hotel. The more time Neal spends with Del, the more he can’t stand him, though Del is a “two steps closer, one step back” kind of guy. Neal finds his incessant talking obnoxious, but Del sets Neal up with a hotel room, but then Neal has to pay for it.
From there, the two try to make it back to Chicago, and that’s part of the problem with the film (at least for me). Planes, Trains and Automobiles – for many – is a holiday classic that understands the inherent tension about the holidays. But as a filmgoing experience, I find it a little too unpleasant to love. The problem is that Neal and Del are both jerks, but neither really knows it, or it’s not the sort of terrible behavior you can revel in. And from the get-go, Neal is portrayed as an upper class twit, so – though that’s arguably there to make us enjoy when he gets stomped on by life – you’ve got two protagonists that you don’t really like apart from their star appeal. Both are doing what they do best, and Martin does a solid job as the anchor of the film, while Candy’s big bear appeal is utilized as well as it ever was. But the tension in the movie is such that it’s building to a conclusion that makes the narrative less fun. The drama of getting home for the holidays, and getting stuck in an airport, etc. isn’t that much fun to live through, so watching the most hellacious version of that isn’t that much fun. It’s the same problem that Due Date ran into, though that makes entirely different mistakes.
And for the ending – all depending on how the film works you over – it goes for deep maudlin, which partly works because of the performers. The film is effective and moves relatively quickly. It’s easy to see why some people love the movie, but it’s the sort of film that gives me an anxiety attack.
Paramount’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio. Like many old comedies, the added surround does nothing for the film, but the transfer is gorgeous nonetheless. Supplements include the making of “Getting There is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (17 min.) which mostly relies upon period interviews with Hughes, Martin and Candy, though offers new (for the previous DVD) comments from cast members like Michael McKean and Edie McClurg. Also recycled from the last special edition is “John Hughes For Adults” (4 min.), “A Tribute to John Candy” (3 min.), and a deleted scene called “Airplane Food” (3 min.). New to this edition is a documentary on John Hughes called “Life Moves Pretty Fast” (54 min.) which is broken into two sections. This is a loving tribute to the director, and features comments from Mathew Broderick, Allan Ruck, Lea Thompson, and Jon Cryer among others, and covers much of his career, but focuses a lot on the Paramount films he made.
The Naked Gun is the beginning of the end for parody films, and pretty much every parody film after this shows a lack of the magic that graced ZAZ’s earlier films like Airplane and Top Secret. But director David Zucker (directing solo for the first time) knows what he’s doing and delivers joke after joke after joke after joke. It’s an onslaught of comedy, and though some jokes are misses, the batting average is high.
Leslie Nielsen stars as Detective Frank Drebin, who starts the film by beating the crap out of the world’s evilest people (at the time). His partner Nordberg (O.J. Simpson) stumbles onto a plot to bring heroin into the country and assassinate the visiting Queen of England, so when Frank returns home he looks to investigate. While snooping, he meets Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban) and Vincent’s assistant Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley), and afterwards Vincent tells Jane to keep an eye on Frank. They go out and fall in love, to a musical montage (half the jokes work). Vincent is the big baddie, and Frank tries to figure out his evil scheme but mostly proves incompetent – even though he’s right.
To explain the plot, or the film’s use of hypnosis, or the plot to kill the queen is secondary when you can just quote the film ad nauseum – the film is practically defined by its quotability. From the obvious jokes about beavers to some of the more subtle wordplay, the film doesn’t have the same pop of a full ZAZ team movie but the laughs are so solid that it doesn’t matter. The biggest strikes against the film is that its weakest jokes are what came to represent the genre. Here sometimes when there’s no end for a scene, they have someone trip, fart or whatever. Stuff that was less tired when the film was released, but the flopsweat of people attempting to do the same in the more recent types of these movies (like Meet the Spartans, etc.) shows that these films need a mixture of cleverness and slapstick, which this has in spades.
I think the big difference between The Naked Gun, and the best of the ZAZ work is that they were parodying things not of the moment. They had much more to draw on, and could work modern references in if necessary, but had the backbone of previous absurdity. Making parodies of current films doesn’t give the audience or the film’s makers time to recognize what doesn’t work about the genres or films they’re making fun of, and instead reach for recognition over much satire. Here the tropes of the cop show/movie and procedural are enough to have a narrative. That said, if you’ve never seen Police Squad, the show from which this movie was resurrected, it’s six half-hour episodes that are now collected on DVD, and are just as funny – if not more so – than the entire Naked Gun film franchise.
Paramount’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD master audio. Again, the picture is a bit sharper, and the surround sound is noticeable, but not all that beneficial. Extras include a commentary by David Zucker, producer Jim Weiss and host Peter Tilden. With commentaries for comedies, often the people run out of things to say, and here there is some location talk, but they keep on topic, and have great stories about the making of the film, though they suggest there are numerous outtakes and deleted scenes that aren’t included with the Blu-ray. In fact, the only additional extra is the film’s theatrical trailer.