New York City. T-minus two days to Thanksgiving. A mere two hours by plane to Chicago. Ad man Neal Page will be home in the Windy City in plenty of time for turkey and all the trimmings, right?
As everyone who loves Planes, Trains and Automobiles knows: Wrong. One of the few movies set around Thanksgiving, it was bound to become a perennial favorite — and the fact that this is probably 80s teen-movie king John Hughes’s most adult movie certainly helped it become an instant classic. It’s the pathos under the boisterous, noisy comedy that helps fuel its continuing popularity today.
Everything that can go wrong for Neal (Steve Martin: Bowfinger, The Out-of-Towners) does during his 48-hour journey from New York to Chicago. He has to fight for a cab on the streets of Manhattan; his flight is delayed; despite his first-class ticket, he gets shunted to coach; snow at O’Hare diverts his plane to Wichita. And this is just the beginning of his travel nightmare. Once he hooks up with shower-curtain-ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy) — “the biggest pain in the butt who ever came down the pike” is Del’s own sad assessment of himself — Neal is out of the frying pan and — almost literally, at one point — into the fire.
Martin and Candy raise the movie above the level of the typical silly-road-trip-gone-awry genre. Brilliant comedic actors both, they know that pain and anger and tragedy lurk under the best and funniest of comedy. Stuck in a grungy motel in Wichita with only a single double bed to share — and lucky to get this, the last room available in the city — Neal’s frustration and rage, building since New York, finally explodes, and poor Del is the only one in firing range. An “annoying blabbermouth,” Del is a mass of distasteful, irritating habits and tics — using all the towels in the bathroom, clearing his sinuses noisily, telling pointless and unfunny anecdotes — and Neal, pushed beyond his capacity for charity, goes into an extended rant, explaining in exquisite detail every little thing about Del that exasperates him. The humor is delicately balanced by both Neal’s mean-spiritedness, however understandable, and Del’s genuine pain, as he listens silently, tears welling in his eyes. The touching capper to the scene is Neal’s wordless apology, which consists of him climbing back into the too-small bed to share it with this near stranger he has hurt.
Martin and Candy are not only wonderful together, but separately, too. In his gray overcoat and fedora, Martin’s Neal not only looks like a Capra-esque hero, he acts like one, too, a throwback to old-fashioned movies whose average-Joe leading men endure, mostly stoically, trials and tribulations above and beyond the call of duty. Candy’s Del could have easily been a caricature of the overfriendly guy we’ve all had the misfortune to get stuck with, but Candy gives Del a heartfelt and bitter self-awareness that makes the character ultimately more poignant than anything else. Very nearly heartbreaking is the small scene in which Del places a framed photo of his wife — he always travels with it — on a motel bedside table so that he can sleep near her.
An ode to family and home — these are the things both Neal and Del, in very different ways, go through hell for — Planes, Trains and Automobiles is just plain funny as well. Keep an eye out for amusing cameos from actors like Kevin Bacon and Michael McKean, and for Dylan Baker’s (Oxygen) hilarious turn as a redneck who gives Neal and Del a lift. And be sure to watch the credits all the way through (or fast forward to the end) — a joke from the very beginning of the film finally gets its punchline there.