REVIEW: Planes, Trains & Automobiles [1987]

“Like your job; love your wife”

Being the first John Hughes film I have seen since the writer/director’s passing, I feel that I need to speak about the man’s oeuvre along with the movie itself. I think many could make the argument that Planes, Trains & Automobiles is his best work. He wrote a lot of scripts, even into the years before his death, but as far as the ones he directed, you won’t get one that resonates on an adult level quite like this. The Breakfast Club will always hold a special, nostalgic place in my heart, but, looking at his filmography, this 1987 entry is the one that doesn’t deal with teenage angst. Not even speaking about the swearing—we are talking hard-R for one rental car rant alone—the subject matter is more buddy comedy dealing with serious heartache on the holidays than high school cliques and growing up. The consummate Thanksgiving film? … I’d say so. One of the best comedies ever made? … I think one could argue that statement as well.

It is weird how many comedies of this kind deal with a marketing/creative executive—the underrated Nothing to Lose comes to mind—but we open with Steve Martin’s Neal Page watching his boss hem and haw about an advertisement, desperately needing to catch a plane home to his family in Chicago. The film quickly becomes a race against time to make it to the airport before 6:00, soon finding one man as a large adversary to this goal—John Candy’s great Del Griffith. This character is the epitome of what made Candy such a great comedic talent. His jolly appeal sucks you right in, making you feel for him despite his obnoxious talent at talking unceasingly. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, smiling wide when he is happy and pouting darkly when being chastised for being himself. For anyone that wonders whether they need to change who they are to keep relationships should take a good look at most of Candy’s roles, but especially this one, to see that all it takes is self-confidence and a love for yourself to succeed. If someone doesn’t like you for who you are, well then they aren’t worthy of knowing you anyways.

These two men find their lives to be intertwined for the next couple days, trying every way possible to get home. Between flight delays; inclement weather; a smoking and immobile train; a combustible rental car; awkward evenings in motel rooms; and just being two of the most opposite personalities to be put together in close quarters, the laughs are big and many. There are so many oneliners to be remembered and repeated—just ask my cousin who was quoting the film the entire day before we watched it—showing the talent that was Hughes. His ability to write how people speak was unequaled. He characters were real and very much based on people that we all have in our lives. Everyone has, or is, a stoic, serious, and cold Neal Page or an overbearing, kindhearted, loudmouth Del Griffith. No matter which they are, there is always something that makes them irreplaceable in your life; no matter their shortcomings, they are trustworthy, compassionate, and will risk their own lives for yours.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is full of set pieces and physical comedy too, but you cannot deny the writing and how it weaves all the parts to make a cohesive whole. This odd couple could make any situation gold, so pitting them against each other in heightened circumstances, let alone so many in such a short time, will allow them to excel. Tragedy upon tragedy can easily become too much, be seen as contrived plot devices that are utilized to advance the story artificially rather than a natural sequence of events. For some reason, though, and I think it goes back to Hughes, it completely works here. The transitions are seamless and instead of dreading the “I wonder what will happen next” question, you begin to anticipate the next unfortunate mishap, relishing the comedic genius that will follow. Both Martin and Candy are at the top of their games here, honing the elastic zaniness that made them so effective in earlier years to complement the seasoned professionalism that their careers had taken on. Martin, of course, has continued to evolve and succeed even now, more than two decades later, so we can only imagine the great unforgettable roles we’ve missed since Candy passed away in 1994.

Again, though, no matter how important these leads are to the film, Hughes is the wizard behind the curtain. All the things he is known for, the final freeze frame, the schmaltzy music cues, (which somehow work effectively every time), and the reality of how humorous heartache can be are included. They are little trademarks, proving the auteur Hughes was, and make you wonder how different some of his scripted works would have been if he was behind the camera on them. There is also something to be said about his supporting characters—well written and integral despite the lack of screentime they are given. Someone like Kevin Bacon makes his villainous part three-dimensional while having no lines, emoting strictly from body language; Dylan Baker embodies backwoods hick like no other; and Hughes regular Edie McClurg takes the f-bomb laced rant from Martin like a champ, adding the perfect footnote to the sequence. And I think this is why his films are so cherished and unforgettable; they do all the little things right, making them masterpieces whether you feel their subject matter deserves the praise or not. They have all stood the test of time and will continue to do so for years to come, extending his legacy and securing his place in cinematic history.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

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