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Planes, Trains and Automobiles (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 15, 2020

Planes, Trains and Automobiles


Starring Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Michael McKean, Kevin Bacon, Dylan Baker, Carol Bruce, Olivia Burnette, Diana Douglas, Martin Ferrero, Martin Ferrero, Richard Herd, Susan Kellerman, Matthew Lawrence, George O. Petrie, Ben Stein, William Windom and Edie McClurg.

Screenplay by John Hughes.

Directed by John Hughes.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures. 93 minutes. Rated R.

Hollywood has made tons of memorable Christmas films. There are also quite a few films which celebrate Halloween. On the other hand, it is rare that they make movies about Thanksgiving, and when they do, they are mostly dysfunctional family angst-fests – like Home for the Holidays.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is really the only thing you could really call a Thanksgiving standard – a turkey day movie experience worth revisiting annually. (Unless you perhaps count TV specials like A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.) And while the movie doesn’t technically have much to do with the holiday – only the final scenes have turkey, cranberries and family – it captures the idea of a family Thanksgiving better than any other film I can think of.

Pretty good for a slapstick farce road-trip movie.

At the point, this movie was the latest in a historic hot streak by writer/director John Hughes – which included National Lampoon’s Vacation, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink. It was also Hughes’ first film that did not revolve around teenagers (though Vacation was about two generations of a family).

Planes, Trains and Automobiles was Hughes’ first adult film, but that didn’t mean it was mature or serious.

The storyline could not be simpler. Two businessmen who are in New York need to get home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. They meet by chance while traveling, and when a series of mini-disasters – including a snowstorm – sidetrack their trip, they have to use all of the title vehicles in an attempt to get back home.

In the meantime, they must deal with each other, which they would never do if they weren’t in such dire straits. Steve Martin’s character of Neal Page is an uptight, private, angry, slightly snobbish man. John Candy’s Del Griffith is much more upbeat, loud, tacky, slightly obnoxious, but generally a very optimistic, positive man.

They weather a whole series of mishaps – including crashes, fires, missed opportunities, dealings with criminals and cops, seedy motels, mini-bottles of alcohol, and accidental spooning – on the road to get home for turkey dinner. And along the way, they come to have a grudging respect for each other, maybe even kind of like each other.

The work of these two great old comedy pros is still a wonder thirty years later. Martin generously plays the straight man, yielding many of the best laughs to co-star Candy. About 25 years on from his way-too-early death, this film reminds us what a spectacular comic force Candy was; smart, fearless, and not afraid to make a complete fool of himself. His talent is greatly missed.

As is the talent of writer/director Hughes, who also died way too young. In certain ways, Planes, Trains and Automobile is very much a product of its time – for example some of that Harold Faltermeyer-lite background music and some of the wild slapstick set pieces. But, in other ways it is timeless.

Just like Thanksgiving.

If you are going to watch any movie about Thanksgiving, this is the one.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: November 6, 2017.

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