Any travel nightmares this holiday? Be thankful you didn’t meet these guys.
High-strung Neal Page (Steve Martin) misses the last safe flight to Chicago mostly because of his brief encounter with Del Griffith (John Candy), an obnoxious, but well-meaning salesman. A storm strands the pair in Kansas and they’re forced to work together to get home for Thanksgiving. After an odyssey of misadventures and disasters, the two gradually become friends; Neal even invites Del to Thanksgiving dinner when he learns that the salesman has nowhere else to go.
By the time John Hughes made Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, he had become so canonized as the peddler of teen dramedy that his departure into grown-up movies made national headlines. PTA had no high school or hunky jock in sight, and Hughes dared to make a hero out of Neal Page, a man who closely resembles the kind of absent, revved-up parent that one of Hughes’s teen protagonists might grouse about. Strangely, Hughes’s naysayers seemed to have forgotten Vacation, a film that PTA is just a Griswold away from recreating.
Speaking of Chevy Chase, Hughes wisely cast established comedy stars in PTA and gave them room to play; he reportedly shot enough footage for a whopping three hour rough cut but the studio “suggested” that Hughes trim back to a leaner 92 minutes.
Kevin Bacon has a cameo as a fellow traveler who steals Neal’s taxi in New York. Although it’s not clear in the film, one theory suggests that Bacon is playing Jake Briggs, his character from She’s Having a Baby, which shot its footage very close to the shoot for PTA. I hope that’s true. Briggs is meant to be a Hughes stand-in, and since it’s the missed taxi that causes all of Neal’s trouble, it’s as if Hughes himself is winking at all the nastiness he’s about to unsnarl at his hero.
Hughes allows his stars to steal the show and restrains himself from stuffing the soundtrack with unnecessary distraction. As a result, the film sports a tame collection of pop ditties (“Modigliani” by Book of Love) and classic R&B (Ray Charles’s “Mess Around” is the most memorable song in the film, mostly because of what John Candy does with it.)
John Candy’s Uncle Buck is a nice creation and a character that plays well to his strengths as a comic performer, but neither the role nor the performance is even in the same galaxy as Candy’s work as Del Griffith. Del belongs to a long lineage of film characters who act as mobile chaos storms, with a mission to derail the best-laid plans of an exasperated hero for our amusement, but unlike most of these stock sidekicks—Zach Galafanakis in the recent, terrible Due Date, for example—Candy actually brings heart to the role. Del feels like a real person, not a talking environmental condition. It’s maybe Candy’s best role and essential viewing for fans.
The sappiest moment of the movie isn’t always its weak spot. In PTA, the undisputed sweet spot is the finale, set to Blue Room’s cover of “Everytime you Go Away.” After 90 minutes of hijinks and jokes about sleep-fisting, the sugary pop smacks the viewer in the jaw. Candy scores again with his frank confession, and every guy in the room pretends he’s got something in his eye.
I know that Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a great movie because once you’ve seen it, it’s impossible to forget. As this Christmas season stampeded through my life, I thought of the movie almost constantly. For example, just yesterday I had to put my daughter on an airplane in the snow at the nation’s busiest airport. While we waited for her plane to de-ice—a task that somehow encourages and terrifies simultaneously—I noticed the flight in line before hers was a puddle jumper headed to Augusta and that the flight was three hours past its planned departure. Augusta is a two-plus hour highway scoot from Atlanta’s airport, meaning that the stranded passengers could have hailed a taxi, driven to Augusta, and still had time to chow at the Waffle House while they endured their layover. In that situation, it’s easy to think of poor Neal Page.
The strange fact about PTA is that it’s a simple movie—weightlessness is coded into its DNA—and yet it’s somehow become an acknowledged classic even with the pipe and suspenders crowd. And yet, although cursed with critical appeal, there’s no great kernel of Truth at the center of PTA. The film says little about the human condition, save for a rote message about not being a jerk to others. No, PTA’s greatness is assured simply because it’s funny. Hughes’s material is good and the men working with it are great. This sounds simple. It’s not. Back to Due Date, a fine example of how the recipe gets botched, director Todd Phillips cast the right actors (both Downey and Zach G. are comedy gold), but handed them awful characters. Galafanakis plays a person so thick and destructive that it’s tough to figure how he’s still alive and not entertaining the internet as a Darwin Award nominee. When Neal and Del explode at one another in the famous PTA hotel room, it’s a payoff to a slow build. In Due Date, every scene is pitched at that level of rage, and even though Downy plays a royal DB, you root for him to sell Galafanakis to the first circus they find.
Compare that to PTA, where Del gnaws on Neal’s exposed nerves, but otherwise exists as a human being. We’re told that Del sells shower curtain rings, a character trait that reads like a joke but returns to the plot repeatedly to expose Del’s goodness. He sells rings to passers-by so he can buy Neal breakfast. He knows every motel owner between Saxapahaw and Saskatoon, and they help him because they like him. Del is a nice guy, but he’s not Neal’s cup of joe, and that’s Neal’s problem. We’re rooting for Neal to grow up, not for Del to go away.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles reminds me of It Happened One Night, another light and fluffy road movie that happens to be one of the best comedies ever made and, just like PTA, a fine romance. OK, so maybe Steve Martin and John Candy don’t make for a traditional romantic match, but as with most buddy comedies, the subtext is there. Neal spends days struggling to get home to his wife, but Hughes provides no corroborating evidence that it’s a place Neal should want to be. Neal’s wife, when she’s present in the film at all, seems to blame Neal for the fickle weather, then vanishes soon after, save for the occasional reaction shot and the oddly ethereal stairway descent in the last scene. She barely registers as a destination for Neal. Instead, Neal’s true victory can’t happen until he makes it home with his true love interest, and that only happens after he turns around to pick up Del.
The rumored three-hour cut of the film probably restores much of Neal’s wife to the plot (you don’t hire Laila Robins and forget she exists.) I swear I once heard a rumor that the extended cut reveals that Del is not as pathetic as he seems, and the secret twist is that Del does this to some other Neal Page every Thanksgiving so that he doesn’t have to eat alone. Unfortunately, damn my weak Google skills, the internet won’t back me up and it’s possible I invented the story completely. Still, I always liked the idea that Del has his own twisted agenda. I bet the Page family had expensive new shower curtain rings before the turkey was cold.
The John Hughes Project
3. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
6. Uncle Buck
8. Curly Sue