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Planes, Trains and Automobiles
1987 - R - 93 Mins.
Director: John Hughes
Producer: John Hughes
Written By: John Hughes
Starring: Steve Martin, John Candy, Kevin Bacon, Michael McKean, William Windom
Review by: John Ulmer
   

"The things I had to do to get this part!" - Steve Martin
John Hughes is not often cited for greatness, nor many of his films. Some have fervant admirers ("Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "The Breakfast Club"), but none of his other films match the wit, comedy or heart that "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" conceals within itself. It is like a little gem that carries so much concealed power that it hurts just to think about how wrong you were when you thought at first glance, "Oh boy, another typical '80s comedy."

But it isn't another typical '80s comedy.The story is grounded in its characters, and the laughter comes afterwards. The chuckles and gigles start but, unlike many films, we already feel for all the characters, and sometimes after we laugh, the film takes a turn and we feel guilty for ever snickering at a character's hurt. The classic example of this is the emotional and hilarious scene inside the Bravewood Inn, where Neal Page (Steve Martin) unleashes a hoard of nasty insults at Del Griffith (John Candy), only for Del to turn around and say some of the most memorable and heartfelt lines in the history of film.

The plot isn't exactly complex, nor does it want to be. Neal Page (Martin) is an anal-retentive businessman (advertising executive to be exact), neatly groomed, freshly shaven, with an air of order surrounding him. John Candy is Del, a lovable, huggable loudmouth with a bookful of humorous eulogies, who latches onto people, tries to help them, but only ends up making them worse off than they were to begin with. This is all unintentional - Del wouldn't hurt a fly, but if he tried to ever help a fly we have a feeling that the fly would end up very hurt or dead. He seems to be a man filled with empathy for the common Joe, and his only way of expressing it is through being blunt, annoying, and a chatterbox. We feel as though Del just wants to make a best friend for life. The problem is that he has scared away all possible candidates.

Neal is in New York on business and must get back to Chicago in two and a half days, or he'll miss the Thanksgiving turkey. After a series of unfortunate events, Neal and Del's flight lands in Wichita due to severe weather at O'Hare airport. Stranded for the night, Neal shares a motel room with Del. One thing leads to about twenty others, and Neal and Del end up going through just about every form of torture inflicted upon modern-day travelers to get home and taste their turkey.

The greatness and pure genius of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is that while it is uproariously hilarious, it also reveals hurt and truth, unlike any comedy I have ever seen before or since. This is a combined effort, mainly coming from director/writer John Hughes and the two lead actors. So many films nowadays get the entire formula wrong. They present us with laughs, expect us to warm up to the characters during the duration of the film, and then slap on a sappy, melancholy ending as the payoff. Wrong. "P, T & A" gets it right. It presents us with characters we warm up to, gets us to feel for them, to empathize with them; during this it makes us laugh, and then the payoff comes, and by then we actually care enough to give a hoot.

Scenes as that in the Bravewood Inn are classics. The argument scene between Neal and Del is the turning point in the film, and it is the first time that the audience realizes they're in for more than they thought they were. There's a certain element of tenderness, heart, agony, conflict, and heartfelt emotion in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" that makes it transcend the genre, reigning supreme. This is, in my opinion, a better buddy movie than "The Odd Couple," and a better road travel comedy than "Tommy Boy." This is the ultimatum and the depth of the screenplay is proof.

Steve Martin and John Candy don't just act; they embody themselves so deeply in their characters that it almost sets a standard for how comedic pairings should be. Line them up next to Chris Farley and David Spade and the differences are astronomical. Watching Steve Martin is like acting a comedian at the top of his game. Just watch his reactions. The facial reaction from Steve in response to Del's comeback in the Bravewood Inn is perfect; we understand what Neal is going through, and Steve Martin lets us know this by placing himself in a recognizable area. We also understand Del, and that is really the key to this movie: Being able to identify with both characters almost equally. How often can you say that about buddy pictures? I don't ever feel much sympathy for Chris Farley, if that means anything.

John Candy remains one of the most underrated and underwritten film comedians of all time. Offered constant mediocre scripts during the eighties and early nineties, all the way up until his death in 1994, he could make the material something more, something watchable. I recently viewed "Funny Farm," a painfully unfunny film to sit through. I imagined what John Candy could have done with Chevy Chase's role, and I found myself laughing. Why? Because John Candy can make anything watchable. Just how many times would you watch "Summer Rental" or "The Great Outdoors" if the lead actor was Jim Carrey?

I like to think that someone out there in the film industry would have eventually realized just how amazing an actor John Candy was if he were still alive today. John Hughes did, he played right to it, and by golly he created a masterpiece. Everyone seemed to use John Candy as an audience-attractor during the eighties and nineties, not really caring about whether they had a quality film on their hands. Did they ever stop and ask themselves why people were going to see the movies? It certainly wasn't because of the plots, let's just leave it at that.

The realization that John Candy has passed away in recent years just makes this film all the more effective. It brings tears to my eyes, especially during the terrific pay-off ending we are half-expecting for the film's entire duration. No other film - ever - has brought tears to my eyes the same way "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" has. But yet I do not favor Candy's character over Martin's, which is the key element in this film.

There's some important content in this film, but it is never overpowered by laughs, nor vice versa. They go hand-in-hand. I come back to the Bravewood Inn argument scene. After the hilarious, ongoing insults Neal throws at Del, Del responds and says, "You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I'm an easy target. Yeah, you're right, I talk too much. But I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cyincal like you, but I don't like to hurt people's feelings. So you go right on and think what you like about me. But I'm not changing. I - I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. 'Cause I'm the real deal. Whatcha see is whatcha get." It's creepy how much dramatic, emotional and truthful subtext sneaks into this film, and yet it only makes it all the better for it.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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