Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
Written & Directed by John Hughes
After years of great turns as a supporting character and a couple stumbling blocks as a lead actor, John Candy finally found the filmmaker that understood his particular strengths in John Hughes. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is one of the best American comedies of the late 20th century, able to provide ample laughs and intelligent observations about contemporary middle-class life, the rigors of travel, and the burden of always needing to work to keep up. Candy plays to all his strengths as an actor, particularly how he can evoke great pathos from the audience.
Neal Page (Steve Martin) is finishing up a marketing job in New York City two days before Thanksgiving. He has to rush out of a meeting to catch his flight, hoping to arrive home in Chicago that night. That is what everyone is trying to do, and Neal finds himself thwarted at every turn. Accompanying Neal on this journey, despite him trying to shake free, is Del Griffith (John Candy), a shower ring salesman trying to get back home for the holidays. Neal is uptight and likes to keep to himself while traveling, Del can’t stop talking and is a travel companion most of us would likely not want.
Two great things happen that make this movie rise above the majority of 1980s comedies: the chemistry between Martin & Candy and John Hughes’ filmmaking. I don’t know if I would have thought to pair Martin and Candy or make Martin the uptight character. When you look back at the comedian’s career, he played the comic goofball character for so long and even after this picture. Even a year before this, Martin played the punchline character to Michael Caine more uptight sophisticate in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It works and is the same type of character Martin would play in pictures like Father of the Bride.
John Candy is perfectly cast in a part written just for him. He’s loveable and endearing while able to be at times pathetic, steadfast, and nervously hilarious. Neal Page is always trying to force his way by following procedures and protocols. Del Griffith is a face to face salesman, so he has learned to use charm and salesmanship to negotiate deals. These are not always prime gets, but they do help further the duo down the road, closer to home. Del sells shower rings as designer earrings in a bus station. He gets favors from former customers that aren’t travel in the lap of luxury but get he and Neal a bit further down the road. Underlying all of this is John Hughes’s belief that service workers are undeserving of how they are spoken down to. This culminates in the famous scene between Steve Martin and character actress Edie McClurg that got the film its R-rating.
John Hughes is also not interested in turning Neal and Del into caricatures. Around the 23 minute mark, he has a scene you would expect in the third act where the two men have a heart to heart. Del has gotten them a motel room, quite far from the airport where they are forced to share a bed. Neal gets a firsthand glimpse at the slovenly nature of Del and snaps on him. Del stands up for himself and unloads a pretty sharp critique of Neal’s intolerant nature, extending it to ponder how Neal must treat his own children if he sees people in such a negative light. Hughes makes it clear at the end of the first act that this is not going to be a dumb comedy and that it will be about exploring the relationship between these two men and the clash of their personalities.
Hughes was adept at taking a genre like a road movie/buddy comedy and shaking loose all the cliches and stereotypes you would expect. The most interesting people were not the aloof protagonist who is above it all but the ordinary working people who are just trying to do their job and keep afloat. Hughes sees true happiness coming from abandoning pretense and laughing at the tragedies that befall us, making sense of suffering as part of life, knowing that the time for joy and family will come.