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Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)


In 1987 John Hughes took a huge risk. The man who had spent three years profiling the lives of teenagers did the unthinkable: He wrote and directed two movies featuring adults: She’s Having a Baby and Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

She’s Having a Baby is a pleasant comedy, but PTA is an absolute gem and one of the 1980s’ most overlooked movies, a mixture of human drama and dizzying goofiness that qualifies it for timeless status. I should know. A co-worker and I continually quote lines from this 17-year-old movie. At this point we could audition for a remake.

The movie stars Steve Martin as Neal Page, a Chicago ad executive who wants nothing more than to leave New York and to spend Thanksgiving with his family. That proves tricky. He can’t catch a cab (and nearly breaks his neck in the process), suffers through a flight delay and when he does board, gets bumped to coach. Frustrating Neal at each turn is Del Griffith (John Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman who is truly apologetic for stealing Neal’s cab, and through a flight cancellation becomes his companion on the trip from hell.

How bad is it? These guys travel in the back of a milk truck and that qualifies as a highlight. Neal tags along with Del solely out of necessity. Fastidious, snobby Neal is a walking Esquire fashion pictorial, while Del is a boisterous working class guy who loathes silence. Any attempt Neal attempt has to leave Del’s side he takes. Through coincidence – but increasingly out of compassion – he keeps coming back to the big lug and more disaster.

What’s amazing, especially after repeated viewings, is that both actors are playing such extremes, yet you’re never annoyed by them. Give Hughes credit for caring about his characters as people, especially Del, who we find out hides a secret behind his gregarious persona. The late Candy, always so underrated, gives his finest performance here, responding to Hughes’ calls for drama and comedy with ease and conviction. As for Neal, Hughes spares no expense at embarrassing him, while Martin acts like the sophisticated traveler, not changing out of his suit and treating a pay phone like it’s covered with Asian bird flu. It’s a joy to see him squirm.

The two stars’ dynamics would mean nothing without Hughes’ script, which passes the ultimate test: If you watch the movie with somebody will you repeatedly quote from it? In PTA they’re about 10 jumping off points: ‘Do you feel this vehicle is safe for highway driving?’ ‘Those aren’t pillows!!’ ‘If I wanted to laugh I’d go into the bathroom and watch you take a leak.’

For laughs, PTA is a very good movie. The performances of Martin and Candy and Hughes’ surprising sympathy for their characters make it great. If you don’t trust me, so be it. I’ll still be waiting to run lines with you.