WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Uptight marketing executive Neal Page, desperate to fly from New York to Chicago for Thanksgiving, is thrown into company with slobbish shower curtain-ring salesman Del Griffith. The flight home curtailed, the two men endure each other’s company as they try to get back to their families by any means they can.
John Hughes, best known as writer of teen-centred movies like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, here writes and sits in the director’s chair for a film focusing on two very different adults’ efforts to get back to Chicago in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. Although family is the core theme and motivation behind the story, giving the film something of the feel of updated Frank Capra, it wisely avoids showing too much of the family eagerly awaiting Daddy, concentrating instead on the tribulations of the mismatched travellers.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles is essentially a two-hander, pitting Steve Martin’s repressed achiever Neal Page against John Candy’s affable average Joe, Del Griffith. The two are chalk and cheese and most of the comedy comes not from the outlandish situations they find themselves in – though these are plenty funny – but the relationship they develop through the nightmare journey. At times content to rub along together, at others rubbing each other up the wrong way, Martin and Candy are chalk and cheese, and inspired casting. Martin explodes with apoplectic rage when the world doesn’t work exactly as it should; Candy rolls with the punches and, for a very good reason, lets nothing upset him. But more of that later.
From the start, Griffith gets in Page’s way, Del’s trunk causing Neal to lose a taxi to the airport. The flight they both ultimately get is re-routed and circumstances lead to both men staying in the same hotel room overnight. This whole scene sets the film up beautifully, as the pair first display their resentment towards each other, then cosy up unconsciously overnight. The reaction of the men to discovering their intimacy next morning (Martin: ‘Those aren’t PILLOWS!!’) is fondly remembered as a classic scene in film comedy.
The tortuous progress home contains a lot of laughs and not too much contrivance (the swapped credit cards and young burglar spring to mind), but one scene, at the car rental desk, sticks out as out of character with the rest of the film. Martin’s constant swearing when venting his suppressed fury at the desk clerk was something I had not seen before – the film is usually considered suitable for early evening broadcast, with this bit heavily edited – and the joke adds very little, in my opinion. If the rest of the film were like Trainspotting it would be entirely in context, but then it would be an entirely different sort of movie.
Anyway, it’s not all laughs. The tragedy behind Candy’s character is not that he will be late to see his family, but that he does not have a family to see, his beloved wife having passed away eight years previously. Hughes displays his skill as a writer in dropping clues throughout that lead the viewer and Neal to this discovery at about the same time; and it is a testament to John Candy that he conveys and conceals this sadness at the same time as, on the surface, coming across as a good-natured oaf.
It’s a triumph, too, that the story is resolved without dissolving into hopelessly mawkish sentimentality; and whilst schmaltz isn’t entirely avoided (would the Pages really welcome a stranger into their house with open arms?), none of the emotion is forced on the viewer, Martin and Candy showing restraint and honesty which marks them out as not only great comic actors, but good actors full stop. While the film is perfect viewing for ‘The Holidays,’ the two central performances make Planes, Trains and Automobiles a worthwhile experience at any time.