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Planes, Trains & Automobiles

Reviewed By Brett Gallman
Posted 11/24/11 20:27:15

"Be thankful for John Hughes"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

When John Hughes’s obituary was written a couple of years ago, it was something that came all too soon. Though he’d been all but retired for the better part of fifteen years, he was still yanked from the world prematurely, with his genius having, I think, only been subtly appreciated. It’s a shame that it sometimes takes death to illuminate life, and Hughes was all about life. I’ve already let my unabashed appreciation for the man cause me to digress into this awful preamble, but my point is this: his obituary rightfully discussed how he captured the voice of teenage angst (I hesitate to say the “voice of a generation,” as he transcended that); however, Hughes also contributed some somewhat underappreciated “adult” films, two of which were holiday themed.

One was “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” which he only penned; it’s become a cult favorite over the years, one of many Yuletide viewing staples that gets repeated at least a few hundred times on cable. Less mentioned is the minor Thanksgiving classic, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” which somehow seems appropriate given that the holiday itself is often drowned out by premature Christmas music and decorations.

I suppose it’s hard to make a “Thanksgiving movie”; after all, whatever themes it might carry could certainly bleed into general holiday moralizing. However, I think this is most likely the best you’ll ever see, as it mixes the zaniness of holiday madness with the genuine heart of what these particular festivities represent. It’s about a guy named Neal Page (Steve Martin), who’s caught amidst all that hustle and bustle--he races strangers on the street (one of whom is Kevin Bacon, so keep that handy the next time you play six degrees) for a taxi, as he’s in desperate need of catching a flight back home for Thanksgiving.

He thinks he’s managed to acquire a trip to the airport after buying off a cab for $75, but he’s dismayed to see it speed off after Del Griffith (John Candy) swipes it from under his nose. From this point on, Neal can’t escape Del, as the two are forced to endure a 48 hour comedy of hours that sees things go from bad, to worse to supremely wrecked and on fire.

I think this is a film that imagines that there is a God, and he’s the type of guy who likes to keep himself amused by screwing around with people. Nothing else could really explain how these two guys are seemingly fated to each other; in fact, whenever Neal tries to rid himself of his newfound companion, something even worse happens to him, prompting Del to reappear like a guardian devil leading him to more mischief.

One of the great oddball pairings in film, Martin and Candy find themselves in heaps and heaps of trouble. The title refers to the various methods of travel they attempt to use, with each being a bit more disastrous than the next. But they’re in it together, much to the dismay of Martin’s Neal, who is the weary straight guy to Candy’s oafish but good-hearted motor-mouth. Candy was another talent that the world didn’t get to appreciate due to an untimely death, and this is one of his finer moments; Del is a great Midwestern caricature on the surface--portly, mustached, and heavily-accented (basically the type of guy parodied by SNL’s “Super Fans”). Underneath both that and the impish demeanor, though, is a quiet dignity that sells the film’s emotional moments.

And, as this is a John Hughes movie, there is an undeniable heart that you can constantly feel in Candy’s facial expressions. Neal and Del have some big blow-ups, and the end result feels like the latter has yelled at a kid with big puppy-dog eyes. But there’s also a hint of sadness to Del as well, and there’s certainly some quality about him that keeps Neal from completely abandoning him. One could hardly blame him if he did, though, and Martin skillfully walks the line between being the jerk (which is knows a thing or two about) and the compassionate guy. Since this is a holiday film, you can guess which wins out.

The journey is no less fun, especially since Hughes’s trademarks are on display. His style was always somewhat idiosyncratic--I particularly love his abilities to capture small, genuine, and awkward moments. Given his attachment to teen movies, he’s mostly credited with capturing that type of adolescent awkwardness, but this shows he could find it just about anywhere: in the sharing of a dingy hotel room with a complete stranger, in the embarrassment of everyone staring at you on a bus when you break out into a terrible song, and so on. There’s lots of fine little moments like this peppered in with memorable bit roles, such as the local bumpkin who gives the duo a ride in his truck and the overly perky lady behind the rental car counter, who gets perhaps the best line in the film because it sums everything up completely.

As smart and funny as just about anything Hughes had to offer, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” is a great film that’s eventually about being thankful for what you have, especially since you may have so much more than others. Most importantly, though, it’s about being thankful for the people in your life--even the ones that ramble into it and eventually leave your rental car ablaze in the middle of the road.

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