Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) Paramount Pictures/Comedy RT: 92 minutes Rated R (language, crude humor, slapstick violence) Director: John Hughes Screenplay: John Hughes Starring: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Michael McKean, Kevin Bacon, Dylan Baker, Olivia Burnette, Matthew Laurence, Edie McClurg, Ben Stein, Lyman Ward, William Windom.
Who would have thought that a slapstick farce starring Steve Martin (The Jerk) and John Candy (Stripes) would be one of the most sentimental buddy comedies ever made? Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of those rare film comedies where everything comes together in perfect harmony, there's not a single wrong note in this movie. Martin and Candy make a great comedy team, probably the best since Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon (The Odd Couple, Grumpy Old Men). I would definitely say that this is the late John Candy's best performance of his career. It was also a major change of pace for the late writer/director John Hughes who was known for his many successful teen-oriented flicks like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
This was the first time that he directed an R-rated adult comedy and it's a complete success, Hughes manages to find the perfect balance between outrageous humor and touching drama, I get a huge lump in my throat every time I watch this movie. Set around the hectic Thanksgiving holiday, Neal Page (Martin) is an uptight, self-centered marketing executive who just wants to get home and spend Thanksgiving with his family. The trip from New York to Chicago should only take a few hours, but the trip is doomed from the first minute when Neal races another commuter (Bacon, Footloose) for a taxi cab and trips over somebody's trunk. Then when he tries to bribe another commuter for his taxi, somebody loads their stuff into the trunk and rides away, leaving Neal out of the $75 bribe. It turns out that this is all the work of Del Griffith (Candy), an obnoxious and sloppy blabbermouth who doesn't know when to shut up. Neal is clearly annoyed by Del, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Their plane is rerouted to Wichita, Kansas after a major snowstorm closes down O'Hare Airport (Chicago). After an uncomfortable night in the same motel room, sharing the same bed, the two mismatched travelling companions try to find a way home to Chicago. They have a series of misadventures involving rental cars, a crowded bus ride and a train that breaks down mid-journey. Their road trip in a rental car that ends up nearly totalled is classic stuff! This flick is one of my all time favorite comedies, I love watching it around the Thanksgiving holiday, it always brings a goofy smile to my face. There's so much quotable dialogue that to list it all would be tantamount to typing almost the entire screenplay, so I'll just leave it at this......"Those aren't pillows!" and "How would he know where we're going?". If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about.
While Planes, Trains and Automobiles is hysterically funny, it also has a heart as big as Del Griffith's. The chemistry between the two leads is excellent, Neal and Del couldn't be more different. Neal Page is an uptight, anal-retentive jerk who only thinks about himself, Del Griffith is a big, friendly teddy bear who wears his heart on his sleeve. He's also an inconsiderate slob who doesn't think twice about using every towel in the motel bathroom and leaving his filthy socks in the sink to soak overnight. He smokes and spills food everywhere, Neal just can't tolerate this guy and he finally blows up at him in the motel room. You can see that Del's feelings are hurt, but he still tries to pursue a friendship with him, promising that he will see that Neal gets home in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Even though the relationship in contentious, they form a friendship and a bond. Even though they part ways a few times, fate always brings them back together. It's like these men were destined to be together, perhaps they will experience a character change along the way? Maybe Del's good nature will melt Neal's icy heart? That's where the drama comes into the picture. While all the attention is focused on Neal and his family, there are only a few references to Del's wife and his home. Del is hiding a secret from his new found friend and it isn't until near the end of the movie that Neal figures out a few things. Out of respect for those of you who have never seen this wonderful movie, I'm not going to give it away, but it's a startling revelation that is sure to bring tears to the eyes of more sensitive viewers. The last few minutes of this movie always puts a big lump in my throat, I'm not afraid to admit it, I do have a sentimental side and this comedy brings it out. What really makes this work is the brilliant chemistry between the two leads (as I mentioned earlier). Candy delivers the best performance of his career and Martin gives one of his best performances, this is the first time that he really got an opportunity to display his dramatic skills. At the same time, he's still as funny as he's ever been, Martin has a real gift for physical humor and he gets to show that off here also. The two leads really take center stage, the other actors are merely supporting players who show up for a few scenes here and there.
John Hughes does double duty here (writer and director) and his efforts earn him an A+. The comedy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles is completely outrageous at times. In a movie with nothing but great scenes, the one that really stands out is Neal's f-word filled tirade against a perky and cheerful car rental agent (McClurg, Ferris Bueller's Day Off). He rents a car that isn't even there and the bus driver has left him stranded, so he has to make his way across a busy highway and an airport runway to get back to the rental counter. This leads to one of the movie's best lines, one that will have the viewers floored with laughter. Edie McClurg is also known for her role on the TV sitcom The Hogan Family (1986-91) as Mrs. Poole, the perky, busybody neighbor. After she utters a very profane line, all I could say was "Mrs. Poole! I'm surprised at you!" In fact, it was this scene alone that earned Planes, Trains and Automobiles its R rating, the f-word is used about 18 times in one minute. Except for that scene, this movie could be a very nice family flick. It has positive values wrapped in crude humor and painful slapstick, you can just feel it when an irate cab dispatcher grabs Neal by the testicles and picks him up. What I also liked about this movie is that Hughes didn't resort to the obvious when it came to the main characters. Del Griffith could have easily become just a random, flatulent slob in the hands of another filmmaker. Thankfully, we are spared fart jokes and audible bathroom noises, Hughes takes the higher road and makes Del a believable (and believably dense) character. Likewise, Neal Page could exist in the real world, I'm sure we've all encountered unfriendly people who are self-absorbed to the point of indifference. These two guys make the most unlikely travelling companions, but when they're together, it's like something magic happens. In any comedy movie that features more than one big star, there's always the risk that they won't work well together, that the chemistry will look forced. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is an example of casting done right, these two titans of screen comedy are great together. And in the context of a road trip movie, these two characters make for a very memorable journey. If you've never watched this movie before, I strongly recommend that you see it, you will not be disappointed.