Planes, Trains and Automobiles marked as a large turning point for John Hughes, a figure of the 80s decade that conveyed honesty in his depiction of a teenager, an approach that elevates his masterpieces above the barrage of copycats that plagued its era. Ferris Bueller was the end of his High School nostalgia; from there his films have taken a more mature route that aims to cater to a more sophisticated and understanding audience. It was here in his 1987 collaboration with Steve Martin and John Candy with the backdrop of the Thanksgiving holiday that he has created another near perfect feature that carries far more dramatic weight than one would anticipate from its suggestive poster and premise.
Neal Page (Steve Martin) is a thriving individual in the marketing profession, stationed in New York City; he works far from his family, whom are currently residing in Chicago with a fabulous home, drawn in by the benefits that come with the position to ensure comfort and luxury for himself and his family. In Neal’s attempt to make it back home to his family for Thanksgiving, he finds himself in deep struggles with transportation, initially the heavy traffic and demand of The Big Apple’s roads and later on with other modes of transportation that constantly delays him. Along in his trip is the overly-friendly and extremely talkative Del Griffith (John Candy), whom he first meets in his attempts to find a cab to the airport, claiming that Del stole his cab and formulate as a grudge when they meet once again coincidently at the airport.
I have experienced Hughes at his comedic peaks with films like Sixteen Candles and the Home Alone series, writing great dialogue and accessible subjects that ensures a pleasant trip with every visit; however I felt with Planes, Trains and Automobiles that is where it drops the ball; the film’s only fatal flaw that fails to reach perfection under my eyes. During the bulk of the film, it carries its comedy with pride, at times wrapping moments around sorely to emphasise them. This approach is a risky one, as if the joke fails then the scene could easily crumble.
Thankfully, although Hughes’ jokes often come off as flat, it never becomes dull or insanely frustrating and that is due to the honesty and respect that is portrayed with its two leading characters; they are identifiable by their personality traits, but they are not defined by them; space has been allowed for growth that eventually pays itself off. This is where the film’s heart lays, a palpable beat that enters a scene with initial subtlety and later with enormous impact that makes Planes, Trains and Automobiles the holiday classic that it is. If the film embraced this dramatic force and instead used comedy as a luxurious sprinkle, then this would have been a perfectly balanced film.
It speaks of the importance of family and connections, to let go of one’s prejudices and peeves especially in this time of the year. It reminds us of our limited life span, to cherish the moments where we are within the company of those we love, and even to those we hate. In Neal’s journey he starts to realise the sacrifices he has made over the years, understanding the importance of being present, even in the slightest of aspects of another person’s life. In Del’s case, growth is not as prominent throughout his journey; instead it is in the subtle exposure of who he truly is underneath those anecdotes and laughs, finding a warmth and melancholy that I wasn’t able to anticipate. The film ends with a freeze frame of Del’s sincerest smile, a gesture that shows he has finally found a place where he belongs, but one could also find the deeper sadness that lurks underneath it, a lonely and heart-wrenching finale that almost brought me to tears.
A Hughes classic for sure, standing with pride alongside his other standout features, but so far this is his most accomplished mature film, one that retains a throbbing heart underneath its laughs.