Planes, Trains and Automobiles is celebrating its 30th Anniversary at a time when real-time human compassion feels amiss in an increasingly unapologetic society based on distant communications over cell phones, computers, and other online gadgetry. Released in 1987, Director John Hughes’ rendered a hilarious and poignant film that would prove to be particularly relevant in the upcoming years.
In a crucial scene from the screwball holiday classic, corporate ad man Neal Page (Steve Martin) brutally assails shower ring curtain salesman Del Griffith (John Candy) in a motel room in Wichita, Kansas. Del had just saved Neal, a fellow traveler to Chicago days before Thanksgiving, from a sleepless evening at an airport after their flight was grounded by a snowstorm. Now Neal has to share a bed with a kind but babbling slob with a nasty case of sinusitis. Neal, so self-entitled and narcissistic that he expects even generosity and kindness to tightly conform to his high brow standards, unleashes a soul-crushing riff onto Del.
The scene is remarkable as two titans of American comedy forced one another to expose their dark underbellies in a literally strange-bedfellows setting. Candy was a physically enormous actor, and he did everything big, from screwy blunders to surprisingly vulnerable moments. Here, he is the perfect counterpart for Martin, whose tightly coiled veneer could hardly stand a wrinkle, let alone Candy’s whirlwind of comedic disorder and emotions.
When Neal finally blows his gasket, his speech is a narcissist’s manifesto not only against Del, but against any human being who condescends to enter his pristine universe. However, it is Del’s response — which Candy portrays through a mix of extreme hurt, anger, and stupefaction — that is the heart of the scene. Unless Neal is a totally compassionless wretch (Martin is able to tow that line without crossing it), he has no choice but to face a human being he just hurt standing five feet in front of him. When Neal quietly gets back into bed, there’s some growth through remorse.
Neal — a wiry, tightly coiled ball of elitism—would have liked nothing more than to handle his travel hitches with an Uber and an Android. But Neal has no such reprieve in 1987, when he has to share that motel with Del. Likewise, Del exists in a world where some found his jocose and loquacious personality — full of meandering anecdotes, platitudes (“like your job, love your wife”) and potty humor (“six dollars and a nut says he don’t land in Chicago”) — as a welcome substitute to outright loneliness and isolation. Of course, now a computer can substitute Del, and Neal would likely be the guy doing the substituting.
The nostalgic beauty of Planes, Trains and Automobiles — aside from a delicious ’80s synth score — is its fleshy, alive representation of different economic classes having to deal with one another absent easy technological escapes. Consider this the anti-Hallmark Holiday film: people curse, make out in public, speak in platitudes, and retell the same jokes; generally, they are coarse and loud, imperfect, but not without love. Hughes understood that Thanksgiving week really isn’t too different from any other, which will come as a relief to anyone looking for a holiday film that opts to balance warm moments with some sharp humor on everyday human behavior.
While Planes, Trains and Automobiles shouldn’t be confused for an acute character drama, Neal’s psychological arc develops nicely throughout the film’s episodic structure of hyperbolic comedic situations. Consider the change from Neal’s calculated verbal knifing of Del at the motel to his gentler sarcastic approach when Del (in hilarious fashion) really messes things up later in the film. This not mere buddy comedy material but a portrayal of character growth with a dangling hope that Neil will eventually graduate to a richer, sincere way to communicate.
Candy thrives in the role of a Pollyanna everyman who guides Neal through two days of botched transportation plans. They get robbed; a disabled train stalls their trip; they have to ride in cars and trucks with an eccentric cast of drivers and passengers. Candy and Martin engage in lively “odd couple” wordplay throughout, and a steady flow of screwball situations and sight-gags keep the film’s comedic energy bubbling until its heart-wrenching final reveal.
Hughes does a masterful job of shifting gears from comedy to poignant realizations as to keep Planes, Trains and Automobiles from falling into a comedian highlight reel. There’s a lovely bus scene halfway through the film where everyone is singing jolly TV sitcom songs. The cinematography is particularly sweet — a little bit of that late afternoon light floods through the bus windows as families go home for the holidays.
In the scene, it sounds like Del is leading the charge, while Neal uncomfortably follows. When the song ends, Neal tries to throw his own selection into the mix ,”Three Coins in the Fountain”, a Frank Sinatra song from a 1950s romantic comedy of the same title renowned mainly by film critics for its sumptuous cinematography and intelligent dialogue, but not for its mainstream box office appeal.
Neal, however, is so locked into his worldview, he goes out of his way to confirm his berth away from pedestrian pop cultural references. When Neal’s strained effort flatlines, Del recharges the chorus with the theme song from The Flintstones. Martin’s crestfallen face is sympathetic, but Candy’s expression is even more compelling: Del looks at Neal compassionately, even pleadingly, like a big dog trying to get his Master to come out and play.
“Just roll with it,” Del he says to Neal at one point in the film, and Neal sort of gets what this means on an empathetic level as the film concludes. It’s an important realization for one to make, particularly in this day and age. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a film which grows better and more necessary to learn from in an increasingly judgmental, disconnected world where the Neal Pages seem to be outnumbering and overpowering the Dell Griffiths.
A smorgasbord of nostalgic goodies await including a tribute to John Candy, and a number of segments on John Hughes including his making of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and a retrospective on his influence on cinema.