PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES (1987)

  • Director: John Hughes
  • Writer: John Hughes
  • Starring: Steve Martin and John Candy
  • Where to Watch: Stream (with ads) on Tubi, Stream with subscription to AMC Plus, Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a comedy, but the biggest reason it’s still remembered today is for its “serious parts.” Steve Martin has played a terrible person in many of his movies, it’s one of his specialties. But this is a movie about people learning empathy for each other. John Candy was a comedian, but he gives a wonderful performance here, as a lonely man who knows he “tries too hard” to please other people sometimes, but can’t help it. By modern standards, it is hardly madcap, despite the efforts of the extremely 80s score with which the movie is saddled, complete with frequent record scratches. However, its highest moments of comedy stand with anything the movies have ever produced in terms of uncontrollable laughter.

The story follows Martin’s uptight marketing executive, Neal, and Candy’s Del, a traveling salesman selling those little rings that hold up shower curtains. Both men are in New York two days before Thanksgiving, and both are on the same flight trying to get to Chicago before the holiday. A snowstorm diverts their plane to Wichita, however, and there’s only one hotel room left in town so they have to share. This is the first of a long series of mishaps that throw them together again and again.

Del seems to have been designed to drive Neal insane. He has an endless supply of coats that seem to always be draped over him in varying combinations. He says he “can’t be comfortable” with his shoes on, but his feet are gross. He always seems to be eating something, usually something that gets everywhere. But he’s also always, unrelentingly, nice, and despite his many efforts over the movie to pry himself free, Neal can’t quite abandon him. The key to the entire movie is that it resists the urge to descend into Odd Couple-style yelling. When Neal loses it and yells at Del in their hotel room, Del doesn’t yell back. He looks crestfallen. “I see,” he says. The closest he comes to a comeback is “well, I like me.”

The following morning is maybe the movie’s most remembered scene, when the two men wake up to find themselves spoonly fondly in the only bed. “Where is your hand?” Neal asks. “Between these two pillows,” Del replies. “THOSE AREN’T PILLOWS!!!!” Neal shouts, as the two men instantly spring out of bed and immediately start muttering to each other about how the Bears are having a great year. For me the other funniest scene is when, while exhausted late at night, the pair accidentally start driving the wrong way on the interstate and end up passing between two trucks in a space exactly the width of the car. For about five seconds the movie turns into Willie Wonka’s boat heading into a tunnel, all flashing lights. Candy is just screaming. There are flashes of skeletons. Martin looks over and sees the devil, completely with silly red jumpsuit and a pitchfork.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was the first movie that John Hughes had directed in several years that wasn’t a comedy set among high schoolers. He came up with National Lampoon (writing a series of movies like National Lampoon’s Vacation, along with spearheading National Lampoon’s doomed effort to make the third Jaws movie as a parody titled Jaws 3, People 0), then shifted over to his famous run of teen comedies, all set in suburban Chicago, several starring Molly Ringwald, including Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Pretty in Pink. After this stretch, he spent most of his career as writer, including more successes like Home Alone. But this is perhaps the best synthesis of his sensibility, a sort of combo of sentimentality and magical realism, with more “adult” themes.

In its own way, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is something like a classic road movie, in the Hope & Crosby vein. With the exception of occasional cutaways to Neal’s wife (Laila Robbins), the remainder of the supporting cast is primarily cameo status. Some of them are Hughes regulars, like Edie McClurg as the chipper car rental agent at whom Martin unleashes a torrent of F-words and Ben Stein (now, years after becoming popular hosting a weird Comedy Central gameshow, once again best known for his appearance as the droning teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), in a small role as a worker at the Wichita airport. Others are bigger stars making cameos, like Kevin Bacon (in a wordless appearance on a New York street) or Michael McKean as a state trooper who pulls the heroic pair over for speeding.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is well worth watching, or revisiting if you haven’t seen it in a while. It isn’t a laugh-a-minute, but it’s a nice movie with nice people who are nice to spend time with. This isn’t a movie about two guys who start out not liking each other and end up best friends. It’s a movie about two men who go from being slightly annoyed and “putting up with” each other to trying to really understand each other. It also can lay serious claim to being the best-known Thanksgiving-themed movie ever made, and that’s not nothing.

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