Guest review by Holen MaGroin
Directed by John Hughes
Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of my top ten favorite films ever made. It’s in pretty good company with 12 Angry Men (the one from the ‘50s), Blue Velvet, Die Hard, The Godfather, Lethal Weapon, The Unforgiven, etc. On the surface it may seem absurd to place what seems like a goofy road comedy from the ‘80s on a list containing films of that stature, but I don’t think that it’s unreasonable at all. This film is the best road film ever made, and I have no reservations about calling it one of the greatest movies ever made. There’s no glowing pretension or aspirations to reach Citizen Kane levels of movie making, or bids for narrative complexity. It is a heartfelt holiday classic about a stubborn irate man just trying to get home in time for Thanksgiving. That man is ad executive Neal Page portrayed by Steve Martin, who is helped out in his travels by the loquacious shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith played by John Candy. The two men are polar opposites that learn to care for each other under the extreme circumstances that impede their journey home. By the end of the film, both men have learned to let down their emotional guards and trust each other, a necessary step for the two of them to arrive at their destination.
It’s not a complicated plot, but it doesn’t need to be. There’s something about these characters and situations that seems to demonstrate real life in such a direct way. It’s not a puzzle, everything is clear cut. Not to say that the movie is all surface level, there’s plenty of stuff to dive into here between the two men, particularly through multiple viewings after you know Del’s secret. The level of character depth in these two men is particularly compelling to watch on screen, as seeing the psyche of two opposites gravitate towards each other giving each other strength is both stimulating and moving. Part of that depth comes from the fact that this film was perfectly cast. John Candy and Steve Martin don’t even seem to be playing characters, but amplified versions of themselves. The dialogue, the movements, the actions are all totally natural, and the responses appear to have weight behind them that suggest the character’s past experiences. Guest appearances from Kevin Bacon, Michael McKean, and Edie McClurg all appear in hilarious supporting roles as well, but I wouldn’t dare spoil them here. Well, maybe one.
Steve Martin plays Neal as an impatient cynical grouch who is dying to get out of the sales meeting he’s stuck in so that he can find a cab and get to the airport on time. Del plays the happy go lucky salesman that accidentally steals Neal’s cab during rush hour in New York City. Fate keeps these two characters together as they meet by chance at the airport again. Neal confronts Del about stealing the cab, and Del feels genuine remorse. He tries to be as affable as possible, offering up Neal a beer and a hot dog. Neal being a bit prudish rejects the peace offering with a snarky type of politeness. Of course, Del doesn’t immediately pick up on or at least chooses to ignore Neal’s hostility. All he wants is to get home in a timely manner to see his family for the holiday. A snowstorm prevents their plane from landing in Illinois, causing the flight to divert all the way to Kansas.
The two men book a hotel room together as the hotels fill up. It is at this point that the exposition ends and Neal lets out all the resentment he has towards Del. The set up is complete and now the emotional core of the movie really begins to develop. Neal states in no uncertain terms every problem that he has with Del, not holding back any vitriol. Martin’s performance is so wonderful that it actually gets the audience to laugh along with all his complaints, even as John Candy’s face starts to sink. Martin plays it as a man who has seriously contemplated every perceivable flaw in Del’s character, and is eager to list out every mundane detail. When he says he could listen to the most boring insurance seminar for days on end “because I’ve been with Del Griffith!” his vocal inflections are so comically annoyed that the audience can’t help but laugh. The scene isn’t a joke, it’s clear that the man has been pushed to his limit, but the audience laughs because they understand his frustration. However, the way Neal starts and stops seems to suggest that it’s against his better judgement to be so mean. It all just seems to be slipping out, as one complaint leads into the next until he’s too far to back down. When Neal finally finishes venting, John Hughes hits us with the first emotional blast in the movie.
Del’s reply is an often quoted moment from cinema history. It’s so perfect in its raw emotional simplicity. Whereas the cynical Neal has been stewing over his anger and letting it out almost uncontrollably, Del’s reply is a brief calm statement of emotional truth. It’s a tender “take me or leave me” moment, but Del is clearly hurt deeply by Neal’s words. Del’s trying just as hard to convince himself that he’s strong enough to take it because of the love he has from his wife and customers. Candy’s performance completely sells the speech, and makes the audience feel remorse for laughing at Martin mocking him just a few seconds ago. You can see in his face that this isn’t the first time that someone has gone off on him for his sometimes overzealous extroverted personality, and the hurt in his eyes betrays years of pain in the past. Despite all this pain, he can’t help the way he his. He will never fight back. When he says that he doesn’t like to hurt people’s feelings, it makes the cynical viewers and Neal shameful for feeling any malice towards Del. The two men have been forced to share a bed, and they cozy up together for the night as Neal learns to be a little more accepting of other people.
This John Hughes road comedy distinguishes itself from a lot of his work in that it focuses on adult relationships instead of teenagers. The two main characters are middle aged men set in their own ways. These men learn to evolve the more that they learn about each other. This is similar to the plot of Hughes’ more popular The Breakfast Club, only in this film instead of the characters being locked together in one room, Page and Griffith can’t seem to shake each other as they both make their way from the streets of New York to Neal’s home in Illinois.
Every time that the two men try to separate they just end up in each other’s company again. Also every time that Del seems to be gaining Neal’s favor something ludicrous happens that screws it up. Del driving on the wrong side of the highway after falling asleep is one of these moments, particularly after the car is destroyed and lit on fire and it is revealed that Del used Neal’s credit card to rent it. Amazingly the machine is still able to run, and the two pull up to a motel for the night. All their money was stolen by robbers on the first night at the hotel in Kansas, and their cards were burnt up in the fire. Neal has to sell his watch to get a room, but Del cannot afford one at all. This is the climax of the film, as even after rendering Neal liable to the damage of an entire automobile, Neal finally decides to completely accept Del. He is forgiven. This acceptance materializes because Neal cannot stand the site of Del freezing outside in the burnt up car. Neal decides to throw out all his jaded cynicism and invite Del into his room. It is at this point that Neal is willing to forgive Del for anything, and accept him for who he is unconditionally. The journey the two men have been on together and the bond that has formed over just two days is so strong that Neal will never give up on Del again. The two men fall asleep drinking liquor and talking about how much they love their wives. Never again in the movie is Neal the grouch, he’s even a good sport about riding in the back of a refrigerated truck after their rental car is impounded for being too dangerous for the road.
They finally make it to LaSalle/Van Buren CTA station that will take Neal the rest of the way home. It is empty except the two of them now that it’s Thanksgiving day. This is where Del and Neal part ways for the holidays. That is until Neal begins to put the pieces together. Little scraps of what Del has said throughout the film finally begin to add up in Neal’s brain, and the ending scene that follows is one of the most heartwarming in any film ever. There’s no shame for any grown ass man to ball his eyes out watching it the first time. John Candy deserved an Oscar for the film closing smile he gives. For the sake of those that have never seen the movie, I won’t spoil the ending here.
Most comedies are not good movies. They simply exist to generate a few shallow laughs and leave no long term impression. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of the few comedies to transcend the limitations of its genre with genuine heart and characters that the audience can actually feel invested in. We want Neal and Del to succeed, as they seem like genuinely plausible people trapped in improbably unfortunate circumstances. They’re not one-note characters who simply exist for an endless barrage of sight gags to happen upon them, their choices are based on well established character traits, not just moving along because the plot needs them to. Anyone who has had to travel for the holidays feels the plight that these men are going through, even if they have never experienced it to the insanity that Neal and Del have. If you’ve never seen this movie because you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving or some other reason, I implore you to seek it out and watch it today. This movie is a classic that stands up even if you don’t celebrate the holiday in the movie. As Neal puts it in the film, after the journey you’re, “a little wiser.”