By 1987 John Hughes had carved himself out a nice market within the film industry. His previous teen-based films had all been successful, critically and commercially, and I suspect that nobody expected that formula to change. Then along came Planes, Trains And Automobiles.
A million miles away from the likes of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it tells the story of two men who in two different ways are trying to find their way home. Steve Martin plays Neal Page, an advertising executive who is trying to make it from New York to his Chicago home in time for Thanksgiving.
John Candy is Del Griffith, Director of Sales, American Light and Fixture Shower Curtain Ring Division. As fate would have it, after Del steals Neal’s taxi (check out Kevin Bacon as the hot shot lawyer Martin is trying to bribe), they are seated next to each other on the flight home. After bad weather diverts the plane to Wichita, the two embark on a journey to make it home on time.
Due to the storms and air traffic snarls, they are forced to try and make it home by other means. Firstly, they need to make it through the night. After finding out that there are no hotel rooms left, Del offers to share his motel room with Neal, which makes for the most laugh out loud funny moment of the movie. Squeezed into a tiny bed, there feels like nothing else can go wrong, but then there is the matter of spilled beer, snacks and a break-in leaving them with no money. To top it off, in the morning Neal finds Del spooning with him and his early morning wash is far from simple.
Deciding he can’t take anymore, Neal and Del part company at the train station but after another transportation mishap of the train breaking down, they team up again trying to make their way back home via bus, pick-up truck and the back of a semi-freezer.
Their final hope is of a rental car and after going into a tirade at the rental desk (Kevin Smith, did this influence you at all?) the two of them begin their final journey, with Neal even begrudgingly giving Del credit for being able to raise cash for the two of them.
Nothing on this road trip from hell is ever that simple though, and through a freak gust of wind Del’s cigarette butt manages to make its way back into the car causing it to set fire. Undeterred, Neal manages to get them to Chicago in the burnt out car and the two part ways, both eager to spend time with their families.
Neal soon realises that Del may not be telling him the whole truth and goes back to where he dropped Del off, where he is sitting alone. He tells Neal that his beloved wife Maria had died eight years ago and he has been homeless every since. As you can probably guess, we get a happy ending with Neal inviting Del home for the holidays.
Hughes took a real risk when making this movie. It was out of his usual comfort zone and he had starring in it two of the biggest known comics of their time who really, up until that point, had been known to go for the easy laughs. The combination worked though, and Planes, Trains And Automobiles became one of the most highly regarded films of the 80s, even making it onto Roger Ebert’s Great Movie Collection.
Martin and Candy both really shine in this movie. The uptight, neurotic Martin plays so well off the easy going Candy, you can’t help but like them both. There are farcical moments which in some movies I am not a fan of, but everything just works here.
This is really the first and last time Hughes did an ‘adult’ themed comedy. From this point on, his comedy pieces became very family friendly but this really is the one movie that needs to be sitting on your DVD shelf.