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Should I Watch..? 'Planes, Trains And Automobiles' (1987)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a comedy film released in 1987 and was written and directed by John Hughes. The film stars Steve Martin and John Candy and follows a stressed marketing executive trying to get home in time for Thanksgiving interacting with a kind-hearted but irritating fellow traveller. The film has gone on to become a festive favourite in the US, where it proved to be a big success at the box office. Critics were also enamoured with the film, praising the film's mix of slapstick comedy and bittersweet screenplay as well as the performances of its two stars. It would go on to earn $49.5 million in the US and is apparently the subject of a reported remake with Will Smith and Kevin Hart pencilled in to star.

Unmissable

What's it about?

Two days before Thanksgiving, advertising executive Neal Page is eagerly waiting to conclude a meeting with a client so he begin to fly home to Chicago to be with his family. Unfortunately, the meeting runs on far too long and Neal struggles to hail a cab to take him to JFK. He eventually gets there, only to find that his flight has been delayed. As Neal waits at the airport, he bumps into Del Griffith - a shower-curtain ring salesman who 'stole' one of the cabs Neal tried to hire who is also trying to fly to Chicago.

To Del's delight (and Neal's frustration), the two of them are sat next to each other on the overcrowded flight when it does eventually take off. Sadly, this is just the start of Neal's problems as the flight is diverted to Wichita due to bad weather. With the ever-optimistic Del to tow, Neal finds himself on a personal odyssey trying to make it to Chicago by any means necessary. The two men brave the bitterly cold weather, seemingly every mishap under the sun and each other's company as their simple journey home gets ever more complicated.

Trailer

What's to like?

Part of the joy of Planes, Trains And Automobiles is the sheer simplicity of its narrative. We've all been in similar situations and Neal's trials and tribulations are painfully relatable. Unlike their journey, the film stays laser-focused on the story and allows the two leads to do what they do best. And thankfully, both of them are fantastic here. Martin plays an excellent straight-man to Candy's loud-mouthed buffoon and the pair of them have real chemistry and an exquisite sense of comic timing which pays off in spades. There's no distraction to the love-hate relationship between these two men on screen apart from a final, heartfelt swerve that ends the film on a very different note entirely.

What I really enjoyed was the film's reliance on genuine comedy and not just puerile, scatological humour that you might have expected. Hughes' script and direction feel based in a more recognisable, grown-up reality than the hormone-ravaged teen comedies he'd done before like Weird Science. This is more mature and well observed, appealing to more viewers than just teenagers who were Hughes' favourite target audience in his early career. The film was part of an extraordinary string of hits by the director including seminal Eighties films like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Uncle Buck - coincidentally also starring Candy. This film deserves to be hailed in such esteemed company as it's wickedly funny throughout with two all-great comic actors at the peak of their powers.

Martin (left) and Candy (right) are two fantastic comedy performers and both of them were in top form here, making this a truly sparkling comedy caper.

Martin (left) and Candy (right) are two fantastic comedy performers and both of them were in top form here, making this a truly sparkling comedy caper.

Fun Facts

  • The film's trailer featured many scenes that didn't end up in the finished movie. This is because Hughes originally shot a version of the film more than three and a half hours long that was gradually edited down to the finished product. Editor Paul Hersch claims that a two-hour cut of the film exists somewhere but it's probably deteriorated significantly by now.
  • Hughes encouraged a lot of improvisation on set including the famous scene at the car rental desk in St Louis. Actress Edie McClurg was encouraged by the director to improvise her phone conversation while Martin was waiting, which she drew on her own experience. She also claims that people still recognise her from that one scene many years later.
  • The scene at the car rental desk was one of two that encouraged Martin to sign on to the project (the other was the scene in the car where he's adjusting his seat). From start to finish, the scene is exactly one minute long and uses the F word nineteen times. Were it not for that one scene, the film would easily have been rated a PG and not the 15 certificate it received.
  • John Candy's line "I know it's not pretty to look at, but it'll get you where you wanna go" was used again by the actor in the film Cool Runnings. He says it when he unveils the team's bobsleigh for the first time.
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What's not to like?

Some people took umbrage with the film's more sentimental moments but it didn't bother me so much - in fact, I thought they worked very well. And the soundtrack lacks a defining tune that usually featured in a John Hughes film. While Pretty In Pink and The Breakfast Club featured the Psychedelic Furs and Simple Minds respectively, there isn't any track which really stands out on the soundtrack. Lastly, as a non-American viewer, I struggled to identify where the film was based and where it was going. Of course, this won't be a problem for viewers in the US but anyone with a patchy grasp of American geography might feel slightly put out.

But in truth, this is a very hard film to dislike. It's heart-warming without feeling mawkish and extremely funny - for my money, it's one of the funniest films of the decade. It's hard to know why the film is sometimes overlooked, though. Perhaps its too much of a departure from Hughes' earlier teen comedies, some of which are lauded as the best examples of the genre. But I like my comedies simple and funny and with a terrific script, wonderful slapstick and brilliant performances, it's hard to find fault with a film as good as this.

The film was something of a departure for John Hughes but was among the most critically acclaimed films of his career.

The film was something of a departure for John Hughes but was among the most critically acclaimed films of his career.

Should I watch it?

Planes, Trains And Automobiles deserves to be recognised as one of the best comedies of the 1980s - endlessly funny, massively relatable and wonderfully simple. It's a stripped-back affair, free from subplots and extraneous characters and is focused on just being a really good and enjoyable experience. Martin and Candy work wonders together and both have rarely been funnier than they were here. If this movie doesn't make you laugh at some point then there may be no hope for you, I'm afraid.

Great For: comedy fans, frustrated people working far from home, Thanksgiving

Not So Great For: soundtrack album sales, shower-curtain ring salesmen, viewers who cry easily at films

What else should I watch?

For a figure of the stature of John Hughes, it's perhaps surprising that he only directed eight movies in his career before he effectively retired from filmmaking in 1994. Hughes was a master storyteller with a particular talent for capturing teenage audiences attention with his sense of dialogue and what life was really like. Films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club were more realistic and mature compared to many teen comedies at the time which often focused on little more than sex and body parts. Only two of this directorial efforts - She's Having A Baby and his final film Curly Sue - received mixed or negative reviews but Hughes' contribution didn't stop there. He also wrote some of the most popular comedy films of the Eighties and Nineties including National Lampoon's Vacation, Home Alone and its first two sequels, Beethoven and Flubber. His sudden death in 2009 left us bereft of a filmmaker of extraordinary talent who left us wanting more.

Road movies are a staple of cinema, having their roots in literary works like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and Don Quixote. The journey undertaken is usually a gateway to character development, either through personal growth or a change in perspective. There are literally hundreds of examples I could list, from the big-budget action of Mad Max: Fury Road to the atmospheric eroticism of Y Tu Mama Tambien to the trippy experience that is Vanishing Point. But few are as outright funny as Planes, Trains And Automobiles - The Hangover is a debauched comedy featuring a group of friends on a bachelor party in Las Vegas while the Shaun Of The Dead-inspired Zombieland brings a horror element to proceedings as a group of survivors travel a post-zombie outbreak America in the hopes of reaching safety.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Steve Martin

Neal Page

John Candy

Del Griffith

Laila Robins

Susan Page

Michael McKean

State Trooper

Kevin Bacon

Man running for taxi

Technical Info

DirectorJohn Hughes

Screenplay

John Hughes

Running Time

93 minutes

Release Date (UK)

12th February, 1988

Rating

15

Genre

Comedy, Drama

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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