Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

Starring Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Dylan Baker, Olivia Burnette, Larry Hankin, Richard Herd, Matthew Lawrence, Edie McClurg, Ben Stein, Michael McKean, Kevin Bacon

Directed by John Hughes

Expectations: One of my favorite films. I relish the chance to watch it again.

John Candy is Del Griffith. Traveling shower curtain ring salesman.

Steve Martin is Neal Page. Uptight advertising executive.

Two guys who never would have given a passing thought to each other are thrown together by chance amidst the holiday rush to get home for Thanksgiving. Without a doubt, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of my favorite comedies of all time. It hits all the right notes and even in adulthood it remains funny and solid throughout, perhaps even moreso. It has been my go-to Thanksgiving movie for a number of years and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. What makes it so endearing and memorable, in addition to its clever situations and jokes, are the rewarding, heartfelt characters played by two wonderful actors.

Steve Martin and John Candy have amazing chemistry together in this film. Their personalities play off one another so perfectly, with Martin’s uptight businessman constantly on edge with Candy’s laid-back, blue-collar workaholic. As great as these characters are, they’d be nothing without some killer situations to get mixed up in. John Hughes successfully strings together a series of events that manages to straddle the line between outlandish and reality, encompassing every traveling nightmare you’ve ever nervously obsessed over or experienced firsthand. The film is a point-to-point series of bad-to-worse moments, working within a similar framework to the 80s standard “endless night” films that Jasper mentioned in his Vamp review, extending the format to a few days for an “endless trip.”

It isn’t until the final few minutes that the non-stop mishaps finally slow down for these two and they make some good progress on their journey. This home stretch period is the relief from the chaotic buildup of the film and comes as a welcome breath of air, both to the viewers and the characters. It is also in these moments that the film finds its real lasting power as a classic. Instead of going for a big hilarious ending, Hughes wisely chooses to continue the gradual slow-down and shift his focus to pulling at your heartstrings. Where this could easily get sappy, the scenes in Planes, Trains and Automobiles are genuine and emotional. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve cried watching this film a few times. Didn’t happen this time around, but I’m sure it’ll happen again.

The music in the film is outstanding as well. Some might fault it for being too dated, but it is one of my favorite aspects of this film. Each musical cue and song is perfectly placed and used with care to accentuate the on-screen action or dialogue. When Neal and Del wake up in their hotel bed, arm in arm, EmmyLou Harris’ cover of “Back in Baby’s Arms” plays on the radio. After Del kisses Neal’s ear and they slowly realize they’re holding each other, they spring out of bed and start shaking off this embarrassing experience. One of them mentions the Bears game and in that moment the music quickly shifts to a rousing football fight song. It’s so clever and subtle, but adds so much to the small, hilarious moment.

I could probably do this for almost every scene in the film, but special mention must be made of the shower curtain ring sequence in which Del decides to hock his rings to people by telling them all kinds of bullshit stories about their origins. I’d like to imagine that a lot of this was John Candy improvising, but I have no idea. In any case, Candy sells the scene flawlessly and is the perfect embodiment of the classic ideal of the salesman archetype. This also comes across briefly in a similar scene involving the renting of a motel room, as Del doesn’t have enough funds to cover it, but he does have two dollars and a Casio.

Visually the film is exceptionally well shot and edited. There are many emotions and character thoughts communicated via the editing that makes the film much more enjoyable than if it had been conveyed through dialogue. Coupled with the clever music use, the film is one of the most enjoyable comedies of all time, as both the filmmaking and the dialogue are superb and propel the movie to greatness. When I was a kid, there was no one funnier than John Candy and Steve Martin. This team-up delivered on every promise that even my young, obsessed mind could conjure up. I rented this VHS more than any other from my local video store (with Big Trouble in Little China coming in at a close second), and I love being able to say that despite the passage of twenty-three years and having seen it a countless number of times, the impact of this film hasn’t been diminished one single bit. In fact, I love it even more. Happy Thanksgiving!