Retro Review: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Few films have endured better than John Hughes’ 1987 classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  Featuring two pitch-perfect performances from stars Steve Martin and John Candy, one of the few Thanksgiving movies continues to elicit laughter 30+ years later.

Neil Page (Martin) is an advertising executive on a business trip to New York City.  Eager to return to his family in Chicago for Thanksgiving, he attempts to hail a cab to the airport.  After losing a cab to Jake Briggs (Kevin Bacon from Hughes’ She’s Having a Baby) and getting extorted by a lawyer, his cab is inadvertently stolen by Del Griffith (Candy).

Page eventually makes it to the airport, but his flight is delayed.  When he is on the plane, he is bumped to coach with a seat right next to Del, a loquacious traveling salesman who sells shower curtain rings.  When the weather diverts their plane to Wichita, Del offers to share a hotel room.  The cynical, short-tempered Neil cannot deal with Del’s eccentricities and lashes out.

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The two continually attempt to navigate their way towards Chicago in an effort to get Neil home in time for Thanksgiving.  Will they be able to make it?  More importantly, will they be able to get there without killing each other?

Planes, Trains and Automobiles plays on the familiar troupe throughout films of the 1980s of a mismatched pair.  Stuck together through circumstance, the two eventually come to grow into mutual respect and adoration.

Some of the best comedy is borne out of darkness and sadness, and the two leads personify that the best.  Neil is painfully unlikeable outside of being Steve Martin and having a family.  His inherent darkness eventually leads to emotional outbursts which lend themselves to comedy, but also directly into relatability.

On the other side, Del uses this verisimilitude of confidence to mask his pain and sadness.  Instead of having a situation where he has to be vulnerable, Candy powers through with a nothing story or anecdote.  When Neil’s barrage of insults eventually breaks down that confidence, that vulnerability comes out and hits the emotional peak of the film.

The scene in question occurs only 30 minutes into the film.  It is a testament to the film’s approach to self-love and perspective that gives Neil the opportunity to cut Del a bit of slack.  From that point on, Neil is much more accepting of Del and others.  Specifically, when the two travel by train, Neil strikes up small-talk with the woman next to him, much like Del would.

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Del is simultaneously permanently optimistic by fastidious as well.  When the pair lose all their money, Del sells his shower curtain rings as earrings.  It earns them enough money to eat and it also draws the unnecessary ire of Neil.  Each time Del makes inroads with Neil, something throws him back.  But, each successive attempt at splitting up, either circumstance or sympathy brings Neil back to Del.

Martin and Candy are the only characters with any significant screentime throughout the film.  Despite this, their push-pull rapport and general movie star qualities never invite anyone else to dominate.

Martin plays the straight man, but his comedic sensibilities kick into high gear when faced with increasingly ridiculous situations.  His physical comedic skills are held mostly in check, but he does pull out the rubbery face when the scenes call for it.

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Candy gives the best performance.  Del is a man hiding an immense amount of pain behind a veil of neverending gab and facade of contentment.  When his pain is slowly pulled out, it is never in this large display of emotion, but rather as something that has to be intimated by Neil.  As much as he wants to be happy and together with someone else, he also is painfully self-aware of his own effect on people.

Famous character actors like Dylan Walsh, Michael McKean, Ben Stein, Martin Ferraro, and Larry Hankin all pop up for briefly memorable roles, but no one shines like Edie McClurg.  In the famous F-word rant scene, her midwestern pep and simple nature prove the perfect foil for an exasperated Neil.  The actress herself claims people regularly come up to her just to curse in her face.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles has endured for a number of reasons, but overall, it’s still really funny.  The chemistry between the two actors and the film’s eventual sweetness elevates it over other comedies of the era.  This Thanksgiving, gather your family and watch the film…but maybe shield the kids from the F-word scene.

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