It is Thanksgiving – a time where many families gather to give thanks for what is special in their lives and shove all sorts of delicious food down their throats. It also marks the official beginning of the Holiday season, where many want to be with the ones they love the most. For some, it can be an adventure full of peril and doom just trying to get to their loved ones. That journey is the backbone of the 1987 John Hughes’ classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
The focus of the film is big-time businessman Neal Page (played with brilliant snark by Steve Martin), who is desperate to leave New York and get home to his family in Chicago for Thanksgiving after a business deal went bad. Due to a severe storm, he gets laughed at when he claims he can get to Chicago in under 24 hours and, because of this, sets his mind to do just that.
Along the way, Neal is forced to join forces with traveling salesman Del Griffith, lovingly played by the late, great John Candy. Their respective journeys become intertwined, as one of the most desperate holiday trips ever ensues. Their misadventures involves a plane that gets rerouted, a train that breaks down in the middle of a field in Missouri and a car ride from Hell. There is also a disastrous hotel stay that contains one of the most infamously funny scenes in cinematic history.
One of the biggest misconceptions this film has had over the years is that this is a Christmas film. With the snowy weather, holiday setting and the cover artwork on the recent Blu-Ray release of the film, it’s understandable that many people make this mistake. Films set around Thanksgiving being a relatively rare thing doesn’t help matters.
At the time, this film was a major departure for John Hughes. A writer/director who was known for capturing the plight of teenage life with perfection, he turned his attention to the ups and downs in the lives of adults for the first time in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Luckily, the magic he brought to capturing the world of teenage angst in The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles was perfectly transported over to adult-themed comedies. Hughes always had a knack for telling a compelling story that made us identify with the characters on screen while making us laugh at human folly. He also provoked two powerful performances from both Steve Martin and John Candy.
Steve Martin was slowly moving away from his “Wild and Crazy Guy” schtick at this point and into more mature comedy roles. This film gave Martin a chance to show a new dimension of his comedic talents, playing the put-upon straight man for the first time. While trying to keep things together and setting his eyes on the prize, you can see the inferno slowly growing inside of him as the disasters pile upon him, one by one. Finally, when he has a meltdown at the airport car-rental desk, we see Steve Martin deliver one of the funniest on-screen rants ever captured on film.
John Candy has always had the perfect knack for playing lovable schlubs and his performance here is a masterclass in comedy timing. Next to Uncle Buck, this is probably the greatest performance ever given by this clown prince. His performance as Del provides the perfect balance between annoyance at his bumbling decisions and heart-melting lovableness because of the heart of gold that shines under the hot mess. And then, when we learn the truth about him, John Candy shines in a moment that cannot prevent the eyes from getting a bit misty. It’s a performance that only Candy could pull off.
Thirty years later, like so many other John Hughes films, Planes, Trains and Automobiles still has the power to make us laugh, cry, and relate to the perils of just trying to get home for the holidays. This film is a true cinema classic which has withstood… The Test Of Time.