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Retro Reviews: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

November 10, 2010

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Since I spent half of my review of Due Date comparing it unfavorably to Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I thought it only fair that I go back and review the clearly superior movie. Besides, it’s about Thanksgiving.

Neal Page (Steve Martin) is a marketing executive; well-off and well-appointed, though maybe wound a bit too tight. He’s based in Chicago, but two days before Thanksgiving he finds himself giving a pitch in New York City to a CEO whose dawdling makes him dangerously late for his flight home. Del Griffith (John Candy), on the other hand, is a traveling salesman of shower curtain rings; slovenly and oblivious, at least he’s happy and easy-going. He’s also heading from New York to Chicago, and fate is about to throw him straight into Neal’s path.

Released in 1987, Planes, Trains and Automobiles came out at the peak of writer/director John Hughes’ career. For that matter, both Martin and Candy deliver some of their best performances. It’s a shame that there’s a huge crop of young moviegoers who only know Martin from a string of tepid, kid-friendly remakes of classic movies; and who don’t know John Candy’s work at all.

On the way from New York to Chicago, the flight is diverted to Wichita. Left with no alternative, Neal and Del share a taxi to a motel, both surrealistically tacky in the inimitable style of Hughes’ Americana. By the time morning comes, both characters — and their conflicts — are clarified, and the tone is set for everything that comes after.

It’s actually surprising how artfully everything fits together despite the sometimes lowbrow humor. Most similar recent movies (like Due Date) play like a cheap excuse to string along from one gross-out or big bang to the next. But here each scene naturally follows on after the previous one. And there are so many of them it’s hard to imagine how they all fit into just an hour and a half. Even the downtime between the more impressive set pieces is efficiently packed with its own subtler humor.

But oh, those set pieces. There are obviously many opportunities for Candy and Martin to play schlemiel and schlimazel, respectively, but there is also a lot that’s written to each actor’s strengths. Martin has some great bits as a straight man — the exchange with Edie McClurg as a car rental agent is brilliant in its simplicity — and the driving sequence shows off Candy’s gift for physical comedy.

The movie isn’t just just about each actor playing one caricature or the other, though. We don’t just watch Del inadvertently sabotage Neal’s earnest (and sometimes over-earnest) efforts to get to Chicago over and over; he plays as instrumental a role in keeping them moving forwards as he does in holding them back. And Neal, for his part, sabotages himself with his inability to roll with the punches the way Del does. They play off each other with a real chemistry that makes it their eventual rapprochement one last natural step.

And when they do arrive in Chicago, it’s not just a happy little Hollywood ending. It really feels like finally returning home for the holidays after being away for years.

Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: fail.

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