Written, Produced, and Directed by John Hughes
November 25, 1987
After a snowstorm delays his plane shortly before Thanksgiving, a man must travel cross country with an obnoxious stranger to get home in time for Thanksgiving.
Steve Martin is high-strung marketing executive Neal Page. Martin makes him a very believable human being stuck in very extreme, and often ridiculous, circumstances. As things spiral further and further out of control, he just cracks. The insanity of what is going on makes him a little loopy. Martin is just at his comic best when the situation finally breaks the character. After fighting the absurdity of what’s going on, he just throws his hands up and gives in. Martin has a standard comedic way that he loses it when his characters breaks.
John Candy is obviously the comic relief here as shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith, but he gives a more sophisticated performance than I think he gets credit for. He was a great comedic figure of the time as well as just one of the greatest comedic actors ever, but he also had real talent as shown in his turn as Del. I have watched this movie many times. It has become something of a Thanksgiving tradition for me and one thing I have noticed is John candy gives Del reactions when the topic of the late wife comes up before the reveal. I know the reveal doesn’t come until the very end when Neal figures it all out but when you go in knowing that Del‘s wife is dead you can see how Candy’s character chokes up or reacts subtly when he puts forth a lie concerning her. Pay attention. He is showing that Del cannot accept the death of his wife and is putting on a false face to hide the pain.
This is quite possibly one of the funniest Thanksgiving films ever (not that there are many). John Candy and Steve Martin are absolutely brilliant in this film. Both were at the height of their talent here. They made magic with this script. But this film also benefits from John Hughes expanding beyond the teen comedies he was known for at the time. Growing up in that era I still find it a bit hard to believe that he made this movie. This film is so far removed from what he became famous for yet contains the same basics as those very same films. They all had an emotional center and the characters really grew in a story with serious laughs as well that pulled at your emotional strings.
Reportedly the studio liked the idea of the film but was not too thrilled with the idea of John Landis directing it. The man was known for teen comedies and this, while a comedy, is something with serious heart. The studio was not sure if he could do it right. This was a little more serious and could have easily fallen apart in the hands of a one trick director whose skill set only allowed for a specific genre, but Hughes got his way and he created a classic.
This film has not aged one bit from the first time I saw it. It is still as fresh and entertaining as now as it was then. If Hollywood ever decides to remake this (and indications are that they just might with Wil Smith and Kevin Hart) they could never do the original justice. There is no way you could come close to this level of perfection in a mere copy. The writing and the directing and the casting were all so perfect that such a union could not come again. No offense to the rumored replacements but they are not as good as Candy or Martin. Plus it is just two versions of the same style rather than two different acting styles that complement each other.
One thing this story benefits from is that the characters grow during the story and do not remain static from beginning to end. Neal Page learns during the course of the movie. At the beginning he is a career minded individual that as this ludicrous trip goes on realizes he’s been focusing too much on work and not enough on his family. He is missing out on so much with that point being driven home during the film when he calls to update his wife and realizes that his family is at his daughter’s Christmas pageant. He even realizes that he has been a needless jerk to Del who has been helping him.
Del goes from an obnoxious stranger to a wounded soul trying to connect with someone to fill the emotional hole he has from the death of his wife. He tries his best to not only help Neal but be his friend. Unfortunately, as even he realizes, Del ends up smothering Neal. But the two manage to bond during their journey and become actual friends.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles is also a classic road comedy. They can be hit or miss, and this is definitely a hit. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong. If you have ever taken a long trip you have experienced car trouble or questionable hotels or maybe even theft and here they are taken to the extreme. The whole bit with the car is an absolute classic. That sequence from the jacket sleeve getting caught on the latch to the final torching of the vehicle is just over-the-top insane and hilarious. It is a slow build from the beginning with a rather innocuous event to an insane climax and a comical wrap-up with a great payoff.
The ending of Planes, Trains & Automobiles is just one of the most heartfelt finales in a holiday comedy that I have ever seen. It is sweet and tender and drives home the season and might even bring a tear to your eye. Every time I watch Del explain to Neal about his wife my heart just breaks. The emotion is just so strong. Candy turns in an amazing dramatic moment right here.
The side characters that they meet during the course of this are all well-acted. They are all entertaining if brief characters. And they are characters. They are not generic background pieces that show up to get Neal and Del from Point A to Point B in the story and so forth. The hotel clerks and the guy at the airport that attempts to pick up Neal by his crotch and so on are all entertaining and memorable. Edie McClure in particular is great as the rental car agent that Neal crosses. And Michael McKean has a great cameo as the police officer that just through it all just cannot process what he is seeing. He has this great dumbfounded look on his face through his small segment.
John Landis turned a simple premise into something ridiculous with heart. This is a well-acted piece of great comedy with moments of real emotion in it. The story becomes so much more than it should be. It could be just two opposites getting into wacky adventures until the end with no emotional payoff but with the revelation about Del and the growth of Neal it becomes so much more than that.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a classic film regardless of anything else. It is funny and it is heartfelt and just an amazing movie to see. Watch it!