The charm of John Hughes’ Planes, Trains And Automobiles stems from the inherent ease of its two leading characters. Steve Martin and John Candy are, from start to finish, not playing people in a movie but themselves. They assimilate the personas of Neal Page and Del Griffith as if they were born onto the film set and the cameras started rolling.
If they had been played by other less natural actors, I suspect they would have become part of the story, jumbled up in its gags and jokes without providing the plot with any real gravitas or emotion. Martin and Candy rise above the story and operate on a plane that stands apart from the comings and goings of the narrative. They are two men bound by the misfortune of each other’s company, and they spend a great deal of the movie squabbling and bickering like brothers, yet they share a chemistry that seems birthed, not manufactured.
The two men couldn’t be more different. Neal is a marketing man. He’s got the suit, the tie, the credit card, the nice watch, the family and the beautiful house. He’s in New York for business and his goal is to reach home (Chicago) in time for Thanksgiving. As preparation, he buys a flight two days before.
Del is a travelling salesman — the best shower curtain rings in the world. He’s large and clumsy, and his wardrobe seems to have been assembled from the Salvation Army’s winter catalogue. He too is in New York and it appears early on that Chicago is also his destination.
What follows is a series of meet-cutes between Neal and Del, first on the streets of New York as they fight over a cab, and then later on the plane as they are forced to sit next to each other. Much of these meetings are obligatory. The screenplay, penned by Hughes, deems it necessary to let us know that Neal and Del don’t match. Neal is neat and tidy; Del is tardy and disgusting. Their personalities are polar opposites. Their income is about as level as Pisa’s Leaning Tower. Their philosophies on life are grounded in differing backgrounds. We need to know this because it works as the foundation on which the movie’s finale is built.
A major snow storm hits the north-east of America, grounding all flights and shutting off all airports from the rest of the country. Neal and Del find themselves stranded in Wichita, where they fear they will have to spend the night cooped up in the irritable swamp of each other’s company. Indeed they do; they bunk in the same dirty motel room, made dirtier still by Del’s uncouth hygiene habits and his penchant for clearing his sinus in the middle of the night, despite having a complete stranger falling asleep beside him. Much of this scene is over the top, and I found myself struggling to cope with the believability of the jokes as jokes. No one would ever do the things that Del does in this scene. No one. Yes, Del is a care-free soul, but he is smart and civilised enough to know how to alter his behaviour when in the presence of strangers. One would think.
And then the story takes to the road, via trains and automobiles, mostly automobiles. A lot happens during this time. Both Neal and Del get robbed. They accidentally switch credit cards. They travel by bus with a load of passengers who have memorised the theme to “The Flintstones”. They hitch a ride in the stiffening cold with a spit-hurling and throat-clearing acquaintance. And they realise that one day is not enough; they’ll have to spend a second night together.
All of the laughter is bound by these two characters. At first we are repulsed by Del and his filthy ways, and we kinda see him as a freeloader, which he is. Personally, I find some of the things he does to be rather silly. There’s a scene in a car where he gets both sleeves of his parka stuck to different parts of his car seat. Needless to say, driving becomes difficult. But by the end of the movie, after certain truths about both men have come to the surface, it is surprising how much I had invested in both men. Let’s face it, there isn’t much on paper to invest in. At first glance they seem like rather stock characters. But they grow on you. They grew on me. Sneakily, without warning. It’s a magical thing, being able to feel for irritating movie characters. Just a couple of years ago a film called Due Date paired Robert Downey Jr and Zach Galifianakis in roles very similar to Martin’s and Candy’s. We learn to love Candy in Planes, Trains And Automobiles. In Due Date, we learn to hate Galifianakis.
Best Moment | Hearing about a girl giving birth to a baby sideways and not letting out a single scream. Also, the ending is pretty touching.
Worst Moment | The first night Neal and Del spend together in the motel room.