“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” features three of the 80s best at their best – Steve Martin, John Candy and Writer/Director John Hughes. After 25 years the film could only be dulled by countless, warranted, repeat viewings. Inspired by Hughes’ own travel misadventure (involving the same three cities), the story follows advertising executive Neal Page (Martin) as he battles weather, travel delays, thieves, bumpkins, cabbies, insidious luck and the companion from heck, if not hell, in his quest to make it home for Thanksgiving.
For those who don’t know the story like their own hairline, Neal’s troubles begin following a business meeting in N.Y. when he loses a cab to a big man with big luggage (after losing another to Kevin Bacon). He makes his Chicago flight but when a blizzard forces a landing in Wichita, Kansas, he reluctantly takes shelter with the big man himself, the jabber-mouthed, poodle-permed, socks-in-the-sink-washing, nauseously cheerful shower-curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (a superb John Candy). Thus begins a road movie that tests the resolve and wallets of two very different men. Neal is a well-to-do family man who struggles to go with the flow. His composure is slowly dragged across a razor blade over their 3-day adventure. Del meanwhile lives by a kind of amplified optimism and a healthy supply of low-level connections made through shower-curtain ring sales. One of the creepiest has to be Owen, a spitting, snorting farm hick who gives the pair a lift to the “people train.” As a man for whom travel is sustenance then, Del quickly becomes the one responsible for inching them closer to Chicago, but it’s mostly Neal who foots the bill, and suffers. Before they reach their destination he’ll towel his face with underwear, face death on an interstate highway, and unleash cinema’s longest consecutive barrage of F-bombs (18 in total) on a supremely irritating car rental agent (McClurg). I’m not ashamed to say I enjoyed this.
“PTA” does well in tapping into the world of travel ticks. As a Canadian with a detailed travel history, I can relate, not with Neal’s imperative to make Thanksgiving dinner (In a Canadian version, he would’ve simply phoned it in. “Gonna be late. Save me some turkey. Tape the hockey game.”) but with the occasional urge to fume, tell off an imbicile behind a counter, or leave some questionable new friend in the dust. In Roger Ebert’s review of the 1989 Hughes/Candy vehicle “Uncle Buck,” he says that using a funny car is a sign of comedic desperation. Rest assured, in “PTA” none of the many modes of transport are even remotely funnier than the people in them. But they are authentic, in a way. An interesting bit of movie trivia comes from Wikipedia: “No transportation company wanted to appear inept or deficient in any way, so crews had to rent twenty miles (32 km) of railway trackage and refurbish old railway cars, construct a set that looked like an airline terminal, design a rental car company logo and uniforms, and rent 250 cars for the car rental scene.”
Martin and Candy are a completely convincing odd couple. Martin shows glimpses of his “wild and crazy guy” but is mostly confined to playing the straight man, albeit one wound up from business travel, and Del. “God you’re a tight ass,” Del says during their first major blowout, in a motel room that he’s handily defiled. Neal’s response, “How would you like a mouth full of teeth?” Del’s mannerisms are worth a viewing alone, but the role is also arguably the best example of Candy inhabiting a character. Del has a personal secret that lets Candy stretch beyond the good-natured buffoon that he normally plays, and these scenes work. The few seconds where Candy gets serious is enough to make you wonder, what else was this man capable of? (See Oliver Stone’s “JFK” for one small example.) The performances never hit as heavy as the tears and confessions in Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” but they’re never asked to. This is a less complicated film.
As a holiday film, “PTA” falls somewhere on the continuum with other must-sees: “Home for the Holidays,” where Thanksgiving is akin to obligated torture, and the classicly chaste “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” It’s hard to say where. The film contains enough profanity and aggression to disqualify it as a family film but fans of its stars or Hughes’ brand of humor will likely count this as one of their favorites. This is Hughes’ first movie to break from the coming-of-age quadrilogy (“Sixteen Candles” thru “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) that helped launch so many young careers. Even with adults though, those Hughes’ storytelling mechanics are alive and well. His use of zooms, music (care of composer Ira Newborn), sound effects and fantasy/thought sequences (like Del as Satan) adds a certain playfulness to the event, but there’s more to this comedy than carefully placed music or hands getting stuck between two pillows. Beyond a string of jokes that range from clever to juvenile are a shorter number of genuinely moving moments that easily point to Hughes’ other speciality, showing us the need for tolerance and humility. Neal and Del learn it the hard way, but they learn.
25 years later, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” is considered even more a success than it was upon it’s initial release.
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