Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

26 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When you team up a pair of comic actors in a movie, there’s either a danger of going over the top or not having enough chemistry on screen. But Steve Martin and John Candy are perfectly cast and are in a script that doesn’t let them down and carry the film, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” greatly. There is chemistry here and they never go over the top.

The film is about a road trip featuring two strangers who have to be home for Thanksgiving and will get there any way they can—planes, trains, or automobiles. Steve Martin plays Neal Page, an uptight advertising salesman trying to get from New York to Chicago. During rush hour (and two days before Thanksgiving), he has a hard time finding a cab in the city and when he finally flags one down, it is stolen (unintentionally) by Del Griffith (John Candy), a traveling shower-curtain-ring salesman. He’s also from Chicago. When the two men meet at the airport, Del feels genuinely sorry for stealing Neal’s cab. Neal tells him to forget it. But as fate would have it, Neal and Del wind up trapped in each other’s company, on the plane and off.

This leads to a night in which the two land in Wichita, Kansas, since a snowstorm has hit the O’Hare airport in Chicago. “We’d have a better chance of playing pick-up sticks with our butt cheeks than getting a flight out of here tonight,” Del tells Neal. And this also leads to a night at a motel…but their room is a single. That’s right—one bed. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Neal and Del wake up the next morning cuddled against each other. (“Why are you holding my hand?” “Where’s your other hand?” “Between two pillows.” “Those aren’t pillows!”)

And as the film goes on, Neal and Del continue to make their way home, while Neal tries multiple times to get rid of Del. But there’s nothing that can separate them forever. In one of the best scenes in the film, they wind up renting a car and driving at night together when they don’t realize that they are going the wrong way on an expressway. This results in what is probably the only funny joke that a movie can make about a car and two oncoming trucks.

“Planes, Trains & Automobiles” is written by John Hughes, who also serves as director and producer, and it’s a pleasant surprise, considering that John Hughes specializes in teenage comedies and apparently searched for something more. So now he has “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” a movie featuring a road trip with a great deal of character development and physical comedy. John Hughes had written a comedy about a road trip before (1983’s “Vacation”). This film is even better because the comedy is based on character and reveals heart and truth.

For example, we have the scene in which Neal snaps at Del that night in the motel in Wichita. He shows no mercy, telling Del that he doesn’t know how to tell an interesting story and that he would rather attend an insurance seminar than listen to another one of his anecdotes again. He goes on and on, as Del doesn’t show anger. His face falls; he’s genuinely sad and hurt. He realizes that he was so eager to please and has tried too hard. It’s a scene that reveals comedy and drama in the way that it reveals heart and truth. And that’s not even close to the end of the film, even though it could be the end of a short film (and feels like it, too). It’s this point in which Del wins our hearts and we enjoy watching him through the rest of the film. As for Neal, he learns about patience and slowly but surely develops a friendship with Del.

This is where the film really shines—Steve Martin and John Candy are absolutely great together and they play characters that are funny and empathetic. They’re the classic Odd Couple—one is ordinary and wound up while the other is a slob but more outgoing. But if I didn’t make it clear in the paragraph above, they don’t play caricatures. They play three-dimensional human beings.

“Planes, Trains & Automobiles” leads to the emotional payoff in the final scenes. After all we’ve seen of these two characters and been through what they’ve been through, you’d expect a great payoff. Luckily, this film has one in the way that it gives us exactly what we needed for this material.

NOTE: This film is rated R by the MPAA. Well, I’ll tell you this—fast-forward through the scene midway through the film in which Neal confronts a car rental agent played by Edie McClurg. That scene has the only times you’ll hear the F word—19 times, in fact. Omit that scene and the film is good viewing for the whole family on Thanksgiving night.

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