Planes, Trains and Automobiles (United States, 1987)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, a 1987 feature from John Hughes, represented something of a watershed in the career of the prolific writer/director/producer. Prior to this film, Hughes had been known for his contribution to the popular '80s genre of "the teen movie." Unlike most film makers working in that arena, Hughes eschewed the cheap T&A exploitation of flicks like Porky's in favor of surprisingly sensitive character interaction and relationship building. Hughes made his early reputation with pictures like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. By the time Planes, Trains, and Automobiles arrived, Hughes had abandoned the teen genre, and was searching for something new. He would find it two years later when he wrote and produced Home Alone. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was a bridge between the two phases of his career, containing elements of both character development and physical comedy.

My recollection of seeing Planes, Trains, and Automobiles during its theatrical run was that I laughed hard and often. Re-watching it recently, however, I was struck that, while the comedy is undeniable, the dramatic underpinning of the script is stronger than I remembered. The "hook" that draws the viewer in is the humor, but the movie's real appeal is the characters. Don't mistake what I'm saying -- there's nothing deep, dark, or profound lurking in the subtext. This isn't Dostoevsky, nor does it want to be. But it takes the time to round out the protagonists and allow us to care about what happens to them. There are moments in this film that tug at the heartstrings.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a Murphy's Law story. For salesman Neal Page (Steve Martin), everything that can possibly go wrong is about to do so. This is like Martin Scorsese's After Hours on a grander, less psychotic scale. It all starts in New York City, two days before Thanksgiving. Neal is eager to get home into the bosom of his family so he can enjoy the holiday. But bad weather intervenes. His flight from Laguardia to O'Hare is diverted to Wichita, Kansas after a snowstorm hits Chicago. What makes the trip even longer is that Neal is stuck next to one of those good-natured, annoying talkers who won't shut up. The man's name is Del Griffith (John Candy), and he's a shower curtain ring salesman armed with an endless supply of dumb jokes and pointless anecdotes. This isn't the first time Neal has run into him, either. Earlier in the day, when Neal was trying to get to the airport, Del stole his cab, getting their relationship off to a rocky start.

In the time-honored tradition of the buddy comedy, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles throws these two mismatched individuals together and allows them to suffer all sorts of bizarre misfortunes as they try to get home before the turkey is served. They spend a night in a cramped hotel room sleeping in the same bed, endure the blatant incompetence of uncaring rental car clerks, suffer through transportation breakdowns, and watch one of their last hopes literally go up in smoke. We know they're eventually going to reach the Windy City, so the fun is watching their slow, reluctant bonding as they take planes, trains, automobiles, and tractor trailers to get there.

Steve Martin plays the anal Neal with equal parts unyielding rigidity and maniacal intensity. But, although he has a few memorable "wild and crazy guy" outbursts, Martin's performance is largely restrained. He does a good job presenting the increasingly-desperate facade of a normal guy who is enduring a living nightmare, and who really doesn't want to have anything to do with the jovial boob who is drawn to him like a fly to garbage. Martin enables us to empathize with Neal by conveying the important fact that he isn't a nasty person -- he's just someone who's reacting badly to his circumstances.

As Del, the late comedian John Candy, an SCTV alum, gives one of the two best-rounded performances on his resume (the other was in Only the Lonely). Candy imbues Del with more depth that one initially expects from the big man. Although he's a compulsive talker and an all-around buffoon, his gregarious personality hides a deep loneliness. During one scene, when Neal is berating him for his unfunny stories, we see the hurt gradually build in Del's eyes. One of the keys to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles' success is that both actors develop their characters into fully-formed individuals instead of caricatures. We can laugh at them when they wake up horrified after inadvertently snuggling together during the night, then sympathize with them in their quest for warmth and companionship during the cold, lonely holiday season.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is one of those rare movies that manages to mingle outrageous comedy and light drama in such a way that we aren't repulsed or offended by its simplicity and occasional mawkishness. It's a fine cinematic treat that doesn't demand much from a viewer, but gives back a lot, both in terms of laughter and good feeling.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (United States, 1987)

Director: John Hughes
Cast: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins
Screenplay: John Hughes
Cinematography: Donald Peterman
Music: Ira Newborn
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 1987-11-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1