The comic film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” marked a huge triumph for the late John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles). In 1987, he was viewed as strictly a ‘teen angst’ director. But he surprised everyone with this funny, warm holiday film, which went on to gross $150 million dollars, an amount that was ten times the budget. At the time, Steve Martin and John Candy were viewed as low-brow comedians, but in this film we really saw a different side of them. While the movie’s not perfect, there are some hilarious comic moments. But what really got me was the last 15 minutes of the film. I remember watching it for the first hour and a half and laughing through the misadventures of Neal Page and Del Griffith, two travelers thrown together as a result of endless delays in trying to get home for the holidays. And all of a sudden it just turned into something more. I won’t ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but it’s a heartfelt meditation about what the holidays are really about.
This can be viewed as a family film, although it was given an R rating for the car rental scene with Edie McClurg, in which an extremely irate Steve Martin has an encounter that everyone can relate to. This is a great reason for the film’s success, in that it takes all the perils of traveling across the country and brings the audience along for the ride. Most people can identify with all the roadblocks and inconveniences, but it’s the performances of Martin and Candy that make it fun. Candy plays the laid-back, take-it-as-it-comes Del Griffith, with the hearty laugh and outgoing nature. Martin, usually the comic antagonist, plays it straight this time as Neal Page, the controlling, frustrated businessman responding with a slow-burn to the events around him. It’s a great pairing, and jump-started the careers of both actors.
I’ve seen a lot of buddy movies, road movies, and buddy/road movies. I have no problem saying this is one of the best. Watching it now, it may look outdated. I can only imagine what this film would look like if it were made now. (Not calling for a remake, don’t touch it, Hollywood!) But that may be part of the reality of the film. It looks genuine, even if some of the gags are implausible. It’s personal, and maybe that’s where the appeal is. The script is sharp and well-acted, with all the zingers in the right spots. I watch this movie whenever I catch it on TV, and I don’t seem to get tired of it. If you want to get ready for Thanksgiving, the holiday of gratitude, this is a good film to put you in the mood. Enjoy!