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Back to the Feature: Planes, Trains, & Automobiles (1987)

             When people think of John Hughes, they think of teenage angst, high school social issue films with some comedy thrown in. Specifically, people think of The Breakfast Club and why wouldn’t they? That film captures so authentically the outlook youth have of the world and how their environment influences them, as well as being a great study of characters and an overall tremendous coming-of-age story. But while many would cite this as the greatest in Hughes’ repertoire, I happen to think differently. One of his adult comedies works better not only in its great sense of humour, but its ability to have deeper more meaningful themes and characters, more universal than the ones depicted in The Breakfast Club.
                I’m sort of breaking my rule for Back to the Feature here in that unlike the other films I’ve reviewed for this series, I HAVE seen Planes, Trains, and Automobiles before. Not only that, it’s one of my favourite comedies. But when else will I get to discuss it if not for American Thanksgiving? The 1987 film is the quintessential road trip comedy and I think certainly deserves more discussion than it gets!
                The film follows an unlikely pair trying to get home to Chicago from New York for Thanksgiving. Steve Martin plays Neal Page a somewhat impatient stick-in-the-mud executive whose flight home has to make an emergency landing in Wichita, Kansas and determined to get home, winds up saddled with Del Griffith played by the late great John Candy, a talkative, cluttered, irritating but optimistic curtain ring salesman. The pair endure a series of mishaps in their attempt to get home making for an array of incredibly funny moments and scenes, but also rather surprisingly taking a turn for the serious every so often and tugging at the heartstrings.
                One of the reasons I love this movie so much is having gone to school in Atlantic Canada, I’ve had a few irritating flight delays to get home during the winter season. Never quite to the extreme that Neal goes through, though I’ll note he got home faster than I did one winter (I spent around three days stuck in Toronto). So it makes the situation a lot more relatable and enjoyable. And I’m not the only one to relate. The story was actually conceived by John Hughes after a similar flight of his was rerouted to Wichita. And speaking of the story, this is one of the best written comedy films ever! Hughes in addition to writing great comedic banter and situations, develops the story and characters in very interesting ways. Neither Neal nor Del is a complete embodiment of stern straight man and annoying foil, rather each is gifted with a personality that allows them to not only exchange those roles but feel like realistic characters who are likable and understandably perturbed. The story is also constructed in highly unconventional ways. While the plot moves along as a series of episodes, none of them feel disconnected or unnatural. Contrary to most odd couple comedy conventions, the big eruption of frustration takes place at the end of the first act. This also feels more real, as though it can be funny to build on an obliviously dysfunctional relationship, it wouldn’t take long in these kinds of circumstances to crack and unleash the pent up rage. Placing it here also allows the audience for the first time to see Del in a sympathetic light, and permits the film greater opportunity to cultivate a believable bond between the two and to have the plot concentrate on furthering the comedy.
                A lot of the comedy does work because of these characters. They’re enjoyable, serve the story, and are excellent performances by a pair of comedy greats. Steve Martin is of course exceptional as Neal Page magnificently bringing out the irritation and attitude of this straight man, but as Del Griffith this is the best John Candy’s ever been! He brings the heart to the film amid all the weirdness and is delightful as always. John Candy’s one of the few actors who can just make your face light up as soon as he appears on screen and he does that here despite his characters’ shortcomings. There’s a sadness to both characters, but especially Del. He’s well-meaning, kind, and polite (I like to think that like Candy, Del’s a Canadian) but just happens to be too talkative, a tad irresponsible, and have obnoxious sleeping habits. One minute you want to strangle him, the next you want to hug him. Candy gives his all to the performance adding a bunch of little touches to make his character both funnier and more endearing. It really makes you appreciate Del more and it reminds me why I really miss John Candy who I still think is one of the greatest talents Canada’s ever produced. And all this, in addition to his story by the end makes him one of my favourite movie characters. He has his moments of real annoyance, but I find his kindness and compassion enough that I’d love to have him as a friend. I wouldn’t want to travel with him, but I’d invite him over for Thanksgiving dinner.
Like most John Hughes films, there’s an eccentricity to the comedy, and while this film doesn’t have as heightened a prevalence of shenanigans as the Vacation movies for instance, there are still more than a few moments of oddness and surreality. From quick bits like Neal paying a New York lawyer fifty bucks for a cab, to elaborate sketches later on, including the consequences to Del’s fooling around in a rental car. There are really smart jokes and the amount of misfortune that befalls the characters is plausible, just the worst luck in the world.
What Hughes puts these characters through is just so entertaining and it is fun to see them suffer so much, as awful as that may sound. It’s as if Neal’s been cursed. Nothing goes right, there’s always another delay, everyone gets in his way, and as much as I love Del, he does seem to be the demented equivalent of Neal’s guardian angel. A lot of Neal’s misery comes from bad luck, but a lot also comes from run-ins with assholes. From a flight attendant unwilling to waive Neal’s sudden economy class seat but completely fine letting her boyfriend into first class, to Kevin Bacon to Edie McClurg in a great cameo as a rental agent. There are a bunch of nice little cameos in fact, including Michael McKean, Ben Stein, Martin Ferrero, and even Ferris Bueller’s dad. And a lot of these minor characters have their own bits of memorable weirdness, like Dylan Baker’s out-of-touch hick who spits in his hand before shaking Neal’s, and Stein’s airport attendant who may be taking sick pleasure in announcing so much bad news. And it all amounts to some of the best comedy out there as the circumstances build. The film which ought to be PG-13, has an R rating for one two minute scene explosion. But it’s completely deserved, as it’s how any formerly sane person experiencing this weekend would react, and it’s a nice, literal and repetitive “fuck you!” to the censors.
There are surprisingly meaningful themes in the subtext of this film, such as the importance of family, loneliness, and growing friendship, and the way they’re conveyed through the characters, dialogue, and humour is not indulgent. You feel the bond of Neal and Del and how important it is to get where they’re going. Of course it’s expected Neal won’t be a curmudgeon by the end, the Del Griffith experience will have softened him, but because of the investment in these characters and how much of a heart this whole journey had, it’s completely earned. In the memorable speeches, the affecting tone, the rich but contemporary musical score (a staple of John Hughes), we’re related significant lessons of value, kindness, and sympathy with wonderful warmth. Particularly by the ending. Without spoiling anything, it includes something of a reveal, but the way the scene goes about it, mixing music, emotion, and recollection; and the lead-in to the final incredibly sweet and satisfactory conclusion is flawless. It’s one of my favourite movie scenes and one of the all-time best endings.
As strange as it may sound to say about a comedy, I think Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is almost a masterpiece. It’s an amazingly smart, funny, and touching story with memorable situations and endearing characters, perfect for the holidays. For me it features one of my favourite movie scenes and movie characters amounting to one of my favourite movies. John Hughes’ best film, as well as Steve Martin’s and certainly John Candy’s, I believe is worth seeing on Thanksgiving and any time of the year for some laughs, tears, reflections, and meditations. And seeing as the only other Thanksgiving special available is the very mediocre Peanuts Thanksgiving, what else are you really going to watch??

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