Home > Reviews > Review: “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”

Review: “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”


Director: John Hughes
Produced by: John Hughes
Written by: John Hughes
Starring: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins
Music by: Ira Newborn
Year: 1987

After bringing the world four renowned teenage-centric films, John Hughes, director, producer, and writer, changed course and aimed for the adult crowd with this rare Thanksgiving holiday movie.

Uniting Saturday Night Live alum Steve Martin and SCTV‘s (a.k.a., Canadian SNL) John Candy, Planes, Trains and Automobiles has joined the ranks of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in becoming another of Hughes’ all time ’80s classics and has become such a staple of  the Thanksgiving holiday that I’m certain you’ve passed by it on some marathon airing on cable TV and possibly didn’t even know it! And if you didn’t know of it, then that’s a mild crime, as the film deserves that status.

Being a road trip film, the premise of the film is kept simple: Neal Page (Martin) is an overworked marketing executive who’s just trying to get home to have Thanksgiving dinner with his eagerly waiting family, but as fate would have it, as soon as he steps one foot out of his workplace, one setback after another pushes him further and further towards a mental breakdown. Perhaps the biggest – and I say this literally – is Del Griffith (Candy), a jolly motormouth of a traveling shower curtain ring salesman who becomes the bane of Neal’s existence before he even makes it to the airport.

The film, reportedly inspired by a travel detour that actually led Hughes on a days-long path to get home, is an odd mix of screwball humor, slapstick, sentiment, and schmaltz — an odd combination of ingredients that Hughes somehow managed to make work together without ever really compromising much of the film’s effectiveness in throwing these two mismatched travelers together, over and over again, and forcing the two to men to struggle with the idea of not being with their families for the holidays together.

Steve Martin’s performance as Neal Page is almost legendary. For a family man with a lot to be thankful for, Martin gives Neal the remarkable ability to switch from being an aloof but congenial man into a hate-filled rage machine, all without becoming unrealistic or inconsistent. His long tirade about how much he loathes Del in the motel room is as eloquent as it is painfully mean, delivered with such preciseness and pacing that there’s no question about whether Neal actually means what he’s saying to Del, as if the entire preceding time he has been preparing this speech just for this breaking point.

If you’re used to seeing Steve Martin’s gentler, more recent material like Cheaper by the Dozen, be prepared to be shocked by Martin’s performance here. In the car rental scene alone, he drops a stunning number of hysterical F-bombs within the span of a minute, giving the film its otherwise unnecessary R-rating. It’s brutal, and yet you still can’t help but empathize.

And when it’s all said and done, Martin’s performance and Hughes’ scripting make it known how truthfully regretful he is to have these feelings towards Del, who, despite his numerous annoying qualities, is a genuinely amicable and helpful person who is, of course, hiding a lot more vulnerability and hurt inside than his cheerful girth would have you believe.

As Del, John Candy gives perhaps his best performance in my opinion, next to his role in John Hughes’ other film Uncle Buck. His personality is so lovable and yet so undeniably irritating, and Candy’s performance, like Martin’s, goes between the ups and downs of Del’s personality without ever feeling like too much of a caricature. (See the very similar Due Date for an amusing but less nuanced performance from  Zach Galifianakis as the annoying half to Robert Downey, Jr.’s straight man to get an idea for how easily that line is crossed.)

Of course, I’ve barely touched upon the comedy.  A precursor to films like Superbad, the film mixes its emotional sweetness with ridiculous and almost always hilarious humor. Between Martin’s brutal mental breakdown and the several peripheral characters that pop up, such as the congested hick and his wife that take the men to the train station or the cheerful car rental representative, the film is never afraid to punch up the silliness factor and even throw in a bit of mean-spirited humor for a sizable countermeasure, too. Perhaps the second funniest moment (after, again, Neal’s F-bombs) is when Del mistakenly sends their car in the wrong direction between two semis and Neal begins to have visions of Del as a cackling Satan.

As I said before, this film is a classic. I apologize if I haven’t emphasized enough how fun this movie is. I just didn’t want you to go in expecting it to be the typical laugh-a-minute riot that most people expect from comedy classics these days. Perhaps the only real flaw I can think of is the incredibly dated and mildly (perhaps intentionally) annoying soundtrack. There will be times when you think you know where the movie is going, and perhaps you do. The film’s ending is easily guessed, as the clues to a not-so-shocking reveal are clearly laid out from the start, but, again, the emotional sentiment is rightfully earned by the script and performances, and is kept at a balance by the acerbic and ridiculous sense of humor.

In other words, it’s a perfect family film for the holidays… provided you have older kids or are, like my mom, completely willing to make a nutcase of yourself and loudly shout “LA-LA-LA-LA-LA” repeatedly over the one patch of shocking profanity. But, again, you’d be spoiling the funniest part, in my opinion!

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5

  1. Anonymous
    November 29, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    My all time favorite Steve Martin movie and John Candy movie. Having seen it as many times as I have (probably over 50) the only thing I can find wrong with is is some mistakes with the continuity (especially in the motel bedroom scene). Excellent review CJ.

  2. Anonymous
    November 29, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Ugh, not is is…I meant it is. Oh and this is Lesley BTW!

  1. December 4, 2011 at 8:50 pm
  2. January 10, 2012 at 10:57 pm
  3. December 10, 2013 at 11:19 pm
  4. November 26, 2014 at 11:55 pm

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