2. If there’s a real villain in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, it’s Wichita, Kansas
Yes, New York comes in for a few good whacks. When we first meet Neal, he’s in one of those soul-blanching NYC conference rooms, his face-twisted with hate, waiting for his dithering boss to approve a dumb print ad for some meaningless beauty product. And then we see him out on Park Avenue having a (pre-Uber) cab stolen by a smirking fleet-footed whelp broker played by Kevin Bacon. And then we see him try to bribe his way into another cab by appealing to the good nature of a smug lawyer. (“I don’t have a good nature,” the lawyer says.)
At first you think this is just another expression of 1980s suburban Midwestern populism: The big city is fully of slick, superficial shits trapped in their little fluoresced boxes of sadness and greed, cutting each other’s throats because they’re empty inside and it’s fun. Even in the original script, Hughes describes pedestrians as “a stampede of independent, socially incompatible human units.”
But then we get to fucking Wichita, Kansas. And there we see the mechanics of regional snobbery laid bare. Being a Chicago guy, of course John Hughes thinks New York is elitist, soulless and cold, unlike Chicago, which is authentic and peopled with real humans. But being a Chicago guy, Hughes also views Wichita as a hilarious sack of animate hog excrement, where good people are continually harassed and preyed upon by deranged hillbillies. It’s like “Wichita” is derived from some Native American word for “Mud-Hell.”
Witness: Neal and Del get a ride from the airport in some kind of heavy metal hotrod taxi lined with fur and porn with a “WOLF” license plate. The greasy deviant cabbie takes them the scenic route, prompting Del to comment, “He’s proud of his town. That’s a damn rare thing these days!” Ha ha ha ha ha Wichita. Then they’re robbed in their hotel room by some degenerate longhair with a switchblade. Then they’re taken on a hell ride to the train station by basically Cletus from The Simpsons, who makes his dour wife pick up their luggage. (“She’s skinny, but she’s strong,” he tells them. “Her first baby come out sideways. She didn’t scream or nothing.”) In one establishing shot of the hotel where Neal and Candy are staying, you can literally see pig anuses.
There are many things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, PT&A declares. But one of the big ones is this: We don’t live in Mud-Hell.
3. Let’s pause for a moment to consider the pillow joke
Neal and Del wind up in a sleazy, vibrating-bed hotel room. There’s only one bed. Apparently they didn’t have cots in 1987. At least not in Wichita. (I’m surprised they even have beds there; I figured it would just be heaps of dirt upon which unlucky visitors could be ceaselessly violated by wall-eyed farm animals.) So, the two men share the bed. Morning breaks. Emmylou Harris’s “I’m Back in Baby’s Arms” is playing. The camera pans over to show Del spooning Neal. Del kisses his ear and smiles. Neal wakes up.
“Del,” Neal says, “why did you kiss my ear?”
“Why are you holding my hand?”
“Where’s your other hand?”
“Between two pillows.”
“Those aren’t pillows!”
They jump out of bed, skeeved out, and start taking about the Bears.
Classic scene. But also: ponder the fact that Del can’t tell the difference between two pillows and a human ass. Does Steve Martin have a particularly pillowy ass? Because he doesn’t look like it. And what does this say about Del’s sexual history?
In light of this, I submit the possibility that Del’s wife Marie never did exist. She was actually a body pillow, and PT&A is basically the sequel to Lars and the Real Girl.