Title: Planes, Trains, & Automobiles
Directed by: John Hughes
Distributed by: Paramount
Release Date: 1987
Synopsis: A man must struggle to travel home for Thanksgiving, with an obnoxious slob of a shower ring salesman his only companion. (Via IMDB)
Brian’s Review: Twenty minutes. That’s about how long it took me into this film when I saw it years ago that I knew that Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, written and directed by John Hughes, was going to be one of my all-time favorite movies. The best comedies are funny, yes, but also have a lot of heart, and there is no shortage of either in this film. This is not one of the best movies ever made. It’s not even a movie that may be loved by everyone. But it’s a film that has touched me every time I watch it, and most of the credit goes to the strong writing and the superlative performances by Steve Martin and John Candy. Like John Carpenter’s Halloween, this film is seasonal, given that the whole movie revolves around Thanksgiving (a holiday not typically the backdrop in too many films). This Thanksgiving marks the 25th anniversary of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and I thought it was time to really give this special film its due.
The set-up is pretty simple. Neal Page (Steve Martin) is struggling to get home for Thanksgiving. He leaves work in New York on Tuesday evening, rushing to the nearby airport to make a flight home. He certainly will get home soon, right? Wrong. Everything goes wrong for Neal. He can’t get a cab. Then he gets to the airport to find out that the flight’s delayed. When he finally boards the plane, he is seated next to a loud “blabber-mouth” shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy), who does his best to befriend Neal. Due to a massive storm in Chicago, the plane is re-routed, and they land in Kansas. Not having a place to stay for the night, Neal goes with Del to a nearby motel he knows about, only to find himself sharing a bed with Del in the last available room in the complex.
Now back to that twenty minute mark. Del frustrates Neal to no end in the bedroom, snoring loudly, spilling beer on the bed. Neal, all fed up, jumps out of bed, grabs his clothes, and lays down a three-minute monolog about why he hates everything about Del. It’s a little playful at first, but then it turns nasty, with Neal getting really personal. Because we as an audience completely agree with just about everything he says, we laugh at all of Neal’s jabs, even though with each passing moment, Del starts to look more and more hurt. The joke’s on us, however, when Neal stops his long rant, and Del, near tears, delivers a quiet, heartfelt response. The best comedy deals with real people and real situations, and this whole set-up, providing Neal with a lot of problems and frustration, and the pay-off, which makes us care completely for this bumbling but ultimately lovable Del character, work beautifully. And the movie still has another hour. I knew after this scene that I was in for something special. I was worried, though, that it could be all downhill after that moment. It wasn’t so.
This is one funny movie. Barely a moment passes before director Hughes tries for another gag. The difference between a comedy like this and many others, however, is almost every laugh comes out of what could be a realistic situation. Aside from a sequence on the highway involving Del driving the rental car, almost everything in this movie seems like it could happen. And that makes us identify more with the characters and situations, as we can put ourselves into these two guys’ shoes without any hesitation. The movie’s also funny because the stakes are really high. We know that Neal needs to get home to his family by Thursday night, and we meet him on Tuesday afternoon. As each day turns to night and each night turns to day, he is closer and closer to missing the Thanksgiving dinner. Whether it be the airplane being re-routed or the train crashing to a halt or the rental car catching on fire, every moment we are hoping and praying that Neal can find his way home. Hughes throws every obstacle in their way, with only a helicopter, boat, and tank being left out as vehicles. Maybe those will be left for the sequel.
The movie works in many ways, as a hilarious comedy, as an engaging narrative, but most importantly, as a terrific buddy movie. Most buddy movies are cliched and cloying, with two actors being forced to have chemistry together. Chemistry either happens or it doesn’t. Particularly in comedies, the on-screen chemistry between the two leads can make the movie or break it. The movie will be ruined even if there’s a great screenplay at work. Typically two popular comedians will be put together, with pretty much everyone assuming that together they will make a tremendous movie. But it doesn’t always work that way. Some comedians are funnier by themselves, and some just don’t do well sharing top billing with a second person, whose comedic timing may clash with that of the other. Something truly magical happens in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I was always a huge fan of Steve Martin, and I never was much of a fan of John Candy. Paired together, playing two well-written and three-dimensional characters, Martin and Candy are sensational on screen.
Steve Martin has had an amazing career that spans three decades. Some of my favorites include The Jerk, All of Me, Little Shop of Horrors, Father of the Bride 1 and 2, and Bowfinger. He hasn’t made anything worthwhile in eight years (except for maybe Shopgirl), but I can’t hold that against him. He is a natural comedian, totally hilarious even in marginal entertainment, and I will always be a fan. For me, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is his finest hour. Here he plays a normal guy just trying to get home for Thanksgiving, and despite all his efforts, he can’t escape somebody he takes an instant dislike to. Martin plays Neal Page as kind of a loner, one who doesn’t like to make chit-chat with others. We’ve all be there. We’re on the flight home, we have somebody wanting to talk to us on the plane, and we just want that person to shut up and focus on someone or something else. Neal doesn’t want Del to be a part of his life, but he just can’t get rid of him, and the joy of Martin’s performance is to see him transform from a lugubrious tight ass to a helpful friend. Del doesn’t necessarily change much by the end of the film. But Neal sees the great parts of Del by the end of his journey, and he recognizes that he’s a man who needs his friendship more than anyone else. Martin has some genuinely brilliant moments in the film, including that long rant already mentioned, plus another long rant given to a car rental lady that is one of my favorite (and surprisingly vulgar) scenes of any comedy of the last twenty years.
My love for Martin has never faltered, but my love for Candy basically begins and ends with this film. I don’t know if Candy just couldn’t find good projects, but, for me, this is his one superb, hilarious, genuinely moving performance. I don’t know if I could pick the one perfect Candy moment in this movie. He is completely on his game from beginning to end, providing one giant laugh after another, and providing a handful of really sad and affecting moments. He can be really funny for minutes on end, like in a scene where he’s driving the rental car and Neal is sleeping soundly beside him. As Del drives the car, he starts lip syncing to a Ray Charles song “Mess Around” and keeps having trouble keeping the car on the road. This moment is at least two minutes of just Candy having fun, and it’s a wonderful scene in the movie. The most affecting scene has to be when Neal sits outside in the car, in the cold, his coat pressed up against his face. He talks to himself, as if he were talking to his wife, telling her how disappointed she must be and how much he misses her. This is a sad scene on first viewing. It’s an absolutely heart-breaking scene on second viewing. I get choked up just sitting here thinking about it. When Neal finds out a secret in the end, and we find Del at the train station, I literally tear up every time. Why is this scene more affecting than other sad scenes in dramas and thrillers? Because Del Griffith is a fully realized character, brought to life beautifully the late John Candy. There’s not much I can say too nice about Candy in many of his other films. But here, I can tell you this about him. In this film, Candy is a comedic genius, and it’s proof that if he had had the chance to find better projects, he could have done some more great work. He is missed.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a classic comedy of the 80’s, and it’s one of my all-time favorites. I wouldn’t consider John Hughes to be one of my five favorite directors, probably not even one of my ten favorite, yet he has not one, not two, but three films in my list of my favorite twenty movies of all time. The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. To think, he made these three classics all within just two years of each other. And what’s amazing is the similarity in structure and differences in use of location among the films. The first two take place over a single day and the latter takes place over just two days. But The Breakfast Club all takes place in a high school, with mostly nothing but talk. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is more ambitious in its locations, showing a lot of Chicago. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles takes us all around the country, from New York to Kansas to Illinois. While some of his films just stay behind a classroom window, and others may feature sights from different cities, his comedic timing, terrific pace, good ear for dialogue, and affection for his characters never falter. After Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Hughes would go on to never direct another good movie, and he passed away way too early in 2009. With these three films, he has created a cinematic legacy, and he proves that good comedy is hard, great comedy is rare, and brilliant comedy is one in a million. But he did it three times.
If I had to pick a favorite, though, it would be Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. This is a movie that I will treasure for the rest of my life.