As America marks the beginning of the festive season with Thanksgiving, I thought there no better film to take a look back at than Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Quite possibly one of the funniest films ever made, it pairs the comedy talents of Steve Martin and John Candy as two polar opposites who are forced together as they travel across country to get home for Thanksgiving. Martin plays Neal Page, a tightly wound advertising exec whose mad dash to the airport is scuppers by Candy’s Del Griffith; a shower curtain ring salesman with a big mouth and irritating personality. As flights are cancelled, trains brake down and car’s explode, their paths continually cross despite Page’s efforts and slowly the signs of a friendship begin to fruition.
From the mind of John Hughes, responsible for a long list of generational classics that include The Breakfast Club, Ferris Buller’s Day Out, Uncle Buck, Beethoven, Dennis and more seasonal fare such as Home Alone and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation; Planes, Trains & Automobiles stands out as one if his best films. Very few writers can create such funny stories that have heart to them in the same way Hughes could and this is no exception. Through all of the sketches and set pieces, it actually preaches a message of tolerance and kindness to the fellow man which is both moving and inspiring, and one of the reasons the film resonates.
More than anything though, it is really and truly laugh out funny from beginning to end, with a huge hit rate for gags. Each joke is masterfully constructed and the film itself is layered with hilarity, each humorous moment moving on to the next just as quick as the last one ended. There’s a wide range of comedy on show too; from the silly and at time gross out sight-gags, to the clever use of language that culminates in one of the films best moments, as Steve Martin launches into a tirade of bad language at a car rental employee.
Martin himself is absolutely terrific as Neal Page, playing it straight for the most part that in turn makes his bursts of anger all the more enjoyable. Paired with the great talent of John Candy, a great performer who plays his character as annoying and sympathetic at the same time; and you have one of the great and sadly short lived comedic collaborations ever seen in film. Their career best performances are one of the many reasons I love Planes, Trains & Automobiles as much as I do. It’s the rarity in comedy in that it is side-splittingly funny, completely charming and genuinely moving.
Trivia Tidbit: John Hughes shot over 600,000 feet (180,000 meters) of film, almost twice the industry average. The rumored three-hour version of the film does indeed exist, although not in order – moreover it’s a mess of footage that would take “months, maybe even years” according to Hughes to transform into an actual film. It is locked away in a Paramount vault, and according to Hughes, most of it has probably deteriorated by now.
Next Week: Home Alone (1990)
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