Is there a story more quintessentially American than that of a workaholic father trying to make it home to Chicago for Thanksgiving who keeps facing disasters in his modes of transportation? Of course not. The classic Steve Martin and John Candy comedy rises above it’s simple premise and status as a “pop” film to becomes one of the nicest films I’ve ever seen in my life.
The director, John Hughes, is known for his classic high school films of the 1980’s. I may not need to list his films for you to recognize his influence on teen movie history, and he was known for bringing rich character to the archetypes of high school cliques. His first film as a director to focus on adult protagonists, John Hughes’s trademarks are all on display here- grounded character, a tender story, and undeniable comedy.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a rare comedy wherein the two main characters are legitimately good, nice people. Neal Page (Martin) is a successful, white collar worker heading home from a business trip to spend the holidays with his family in Chicago. He meets Del Griffith (Candy) while waiting for their delayed plane, where the two discover that Del stole Neal’s taxi earlier in the day. With the coldest of shoulders, Neal runs into Del again and again and again, and through a series of weather-caused travel mishaps, they become reluctant travel companions. While they frequently argue and insult one another, you can tell that they both just want to get home. Their desperation brings out the worst in them, but it is evident that this is, indeed, their worst.
The tightrope that is walked by the film is phenomenal. Without the turmoil, there, of course is no film, but the troubles that these two men face is delightful. As audience members, we crave their success and revel in their misfortune. There is nothing in the film that doesn’t need to be there and everything that needs to be in the film is included. The perfect example of this is the monologue that got the film it’s R-Rating. After one too many misfortunes Steve Martin gives a biting speech to an employee at a car rental facility. Without this scene, the film easily would have gained a PG-13 rating, but Hughes chose to leave the scene in. But the film doesn’t revel in this R-Rating either. It is a wholesome family film if I’ve ever seen one, but it kept the R-Rated material that it needed.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the film equivalent of a Thanksgiving Meal. It is at once wholesome and indulgent, best enjoyed with loved ones. Even upon first viewing, watching it feels like tradition. The film can be defined by what it is (heartfelt, original) as easily as it can be defined by what it is not (lazy, gratuitous). It is a funny, simple movie about Thanksgiving and how terrible traveling is- what is more American than that?