Marking a sea-change in the surprisingly short directorial career of John Hughes, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” sees the famed writer/ director move on from his high school teen-angst wheelhouse and branch out into the trials and tribulations of middle-age.
Neal Page (Steve Martin), an advertising executive on a business trip to New York is heading home to his family in Chicago for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, his trip gets off to a bad start when his hard-won cab is inadvertently stolen from under his nose by someone else. Things go from bad to worse when he finally catches his flight, is bumped from first-class and finds himself sitting next to the man who stole his cab: Del Griffith (John Candy), itinerant shower curtain ring salesman and their flight is diverted to Wichita due to bad weather. Against his better judgement, Neal accepts an offer to get him a room for the night at a local hotel and so begins a three-day cross-country odyssey of madcap misadventure.
Featuring a wonderful turn from Steve Martin as the highly-strung, put upon advertising executive and arguably a career-best performance from John Candy, these kind of road movies aren’t easy to pull off (as demonstrated by 2010’s execrable “Due Date”) but there’s such an instant rapport and comic chemistry between Candy and Martin that it keeps the movie on track and emotionally grounded even as the events become more and more absurd. There’s pathos amidst the pratfalls and Hughes keeps things nicely balanced between the escalating comic tension and the poignant hints of what lies beneath Candy’s bluff, loquacious and happy-go-lucky shower curtain ring impresario.
If anything, the movie could do with being a little bit longer to give time for the ending to really breathe as, after the breakneck pace of the increasingly frantic journey home, there’s not enough time to really savour the sentimentality of the ending.
It’s a classic film, not just of the eighties but of the comedy genre overall. With John Hughes redefining his edge as a filmmaker and storyteller and two comic geniuses firing on all cylinders, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” is a comedy vehicle that will stand the test of time, which is more than can be said for that poor old rental car.