John Hughes has absorbed some criticism for repeatedly tapping the teen-movie market, with such hits as Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Never mind that these are easily among the better teen films of recent years: When was Hughes going to make a movie with, and for, grown-ups?
The prolific Hughes answers the call with Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Actually, he made a movie called She’s Having a Baby before Planes, but that film won’t be out until February, for some reason.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles will do nicely in the meantime. It’s a frequently uproarious comedy, with a deceptively simple comic spine: Harried, buttoned-down ad man Neal Page (Steve Martin) just wants to get home from New York to Chicago. Thanksgiving is two days away.
When his plane is rerouted to Wichita and he can’t find another flight before the holiday, it’s not the end of the world. However, the end of the world may well be present in the form of Del Griffith (John Candy), a self-proclaimed “annoying blabbermouth,” who sells shower-curtain rings for a living and can’t seem to get enough of Neal’s company.
Actually, both men simply find themselves in the same boat. Or, more appropriately, in the same bus, train, rental car, truck, and motel room. As behaviorally disparate as they are, it behooves them to stick together as they struggle toward the Windy City, even as one disaster follows another.
Hughes has constructed the ultimate travel nightmare, in which absolutely everything goes wrong. Even when they do find a motel room in sold-out Wichita, Del and Neal must share the same bed. But then Del uses all the towels. And turns on the bed’s Magic Fingers. Which shakes up the beer and gets the bed wet. Then Del must go through a series of nerve-shredding sinus-clearing and finger-cracking exercises.
That’s just the first stop. Hughes has more torture in store, and almost all of it is funny. Throughout the film, Martin is the straight man, reacting to Candy’s outrageousness, and both actors fulfill their functions superbly. They’re seasoned pros, adept at physical humor, timing, inflection. They’re bouncing off each other for virtually every moment of screen time, but Candy always finds new ways of oozing unctuous jolliness, and Martin always finds new ways to burn.
Hughes has a good eye for the paraphernalia of traveling, such as those mysterious Magic Fingers, the little airplane bottles of booze, and the unendurable sing-alongs on buses. The movie falters only when it gets soft; every time Hughes seems set to soar off into manic nastiness, he’ll have a scene where Neal starts to feel bad about berating poor Del. The sentimental ending, however, works rather better.
There’s enough good stuff here to carry the film well past Thanksgiving, into our other imminent holiday. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a smooth entertainment, and as far as John Hughes’ entry into grown-up filmmaking is concerned, it’s just the ticket.
First published in The Herald, November 1987
I think it is safe to say the movie became a classic. Apparently there was a much longer version, which got cut back down to 93 minutes. The last time I saw it, the schmaltzy stuff seemed as sentimental as ever, including the ending. You could see the Hughes mojo dissolving in all that.