Planes, Trains and Automobiles is my favorite movie. Of all time. Of all eras. Of the 1800 movies I’ve rated on Criticker. Planes makes me laugh and it makes me think about the world and myself. Planes reminds me to treat strangers with kindness and remain open to making new friends. The movie exudes an undeniable ring of truth; it stars two actors who obviously play themselves, going through dilemmas that anyone can empathize with. It exemplifies Steve Allen’s famous dictum: “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”
Any of us who had to experience what we see happen to neurotic, irritable, workaholic family man Neal Page (Steve Martin) would feel miserable in the moment and laugh about it later. We’ve all felt within shouting distance of getting what we want while an unending stream of mishaps throws it out of our reach. In Neal’s case, this involves trying to get home to his Chicago family from New York. What should’ve been a 45-minute flight turns into a journey spanning days and every travel mishap imaginable. Twists of fate give him a travel partner in voluble, solicitous salesman Del Griffith (John Candy). The endless series of complications comes off as tragic and frustrating to Neal and Del, but to us it seems hilarious. After all, we get to watch their travel mishaps from the comfort and time-removal of our living rooms.
In Poetics, Aristotle described comedy as “representing men as worse… than in actual life.” He posited that comedy plays off of human foibles, telling stories “where those who, in the piece, are the deadliest enemies… quit the stage as friends at the close, and no one slays or is slain.” Neal and Del epitomize this view of comedy. They play off of archetypes of the introvert and the extrovert, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, inflated to extremes that render them flawed but lovable. They bicker and they separate and they wander into awkward situations (“Those aren’t pillows” cracks me up to this day), but by the end, they love each other like brothers.
Even at my young age, this film’s mixture of physical comedy and contrasting personalities connected to me. This speaks to the genius of director John Hughes. While Hughes had his share of racist, sexist, and classist content (Sixteen Candles comes to mind), his legendary understanding of youth bespoke an understanding of human nature. Hughes was a chain-smoking Republican with a borderline-paranoid distrust of anyone outside of his family, so I never would’ve gotten along with him as a person, but he understood me and he always has.
Like Neal Page, Hughes came from an advertising background, which gave him advantages in distilling ideas down to their essence and in rapid prototyping. Hughes claimed he wrote the first draft of Planes, Trains and Automobiles in three days because his boss, Ned Tanen, needed a Thanksgiving film. Hughes believed in spending far more time on the revising process. “All through production I fix this and I fix that, constantly changing and making additions. So I work on a script for nine months.”
Planes’ atmosphere probably comes, oddly enough, from Hughes’s dislike of directing. Hughes, a solitary family man, night owl, and creature of habit (who tried without success to conceal his notorious thin skin), never liked the demands that came with the wooden chair. He directed solely to see his more cherished visions executed correctly. At the same time, he believed in the “spray and pray” approach to filming: he shot mountains of footage and encouraged improvisation, believing in his own ability to distill the footage down in post. While his films have a lot of continuity errors, the actors embody their roles and every scene serves to add to our understanding of the characters and our ability to empathize with them. Hughes manages the delicate balance of the specificity of characterization with the universality of the situations.
For a conservative Republican like Hughes, it seems odd that motifs of compassion for the poor run through his work with such force.1 But then, so does an anti-authoritarian streak. In Planes, this of course manifests in Neal Page chewing out a hapless rental car employee using the word “fuck” 19 times (in the 80s, when the word “fuck” still roused gasps). While hilarious, that scene channeled Hughes’s real frustration with bureaucracy and red tape, evoking the famous diner scene from Five Easy Pieces. I love that scene because we’ve all been Neal Page. Hell, most of us have even been Edie McClurg’s hapless customer service drone.
Hughes’ libertarian worldview and disdain for authority manifests in the scene with Michael McKean’s police officer, whose decision to impound the barely-running LeBaron threw a wrench in one of the last legs of the long road trip. The fried Chrysler may have had a melted dashboard, a destroyed speedometer, no mirrors, and a surprisingly working radio, but Hughes made sure we felt that getting that car off the road, at that time, in that context, felt more like unnecessary legal hurdles than ensuring road safety. After all, if Ulysses’s ship had a few holes on the final stretch of the end of the Odyssey, then who the hell cares? Get the men home; they’ve suffered enough!
In later life, Hughes’s misanthropy and recalcitrance would boil over. (His friends ascribed this to the failure of his most autobiographical film, She’s Having a Baby.2) He fired subordinates at a rate that would impress George Steinbrenner, he held grudges that would last the rest of his life, and he came to seclude himself between his two Chicago homes. Perhaps that explains why Dutch, Hughes’s other road movie, failed—critically, commercially, and by its own quality—where Planes succeeded. Both had synth-driven, almost chintzy scores and two contrasting personalities as heroes. But Planes emphasized compassion where Dutch emphasized distrust, judgment, and scorn. Planes feels warm and kind where Dutch feels cold and aggrieved. By 1991, Hughes couldn’t make a film with enough energy to hide how tired he’d become. He didn’t mean it anymore.
Relative to John Hughes’s heyday, Planes sticks out like a sore thumb: a movie about two adult strangers on a road trip falls pretty far from his usual teen coming-of-age fare. But Planes absolutely tells a coming-of-age story; Neal’s maturity just happens a little later in life. The end has Del staying with the Page family, but thematically, the film ends when Del becomes family. Hughes’s vision of high school—where seemingly everyone belonged to a clique and ne’er the twain shall meet—carried right over to this story of adulthood, a chronicle of how two men from different “cliques” became de facto kin.
Planes succeeds not just for its story, but as Roger Ebert wrote, because Neal and Del are Steve Martin and John Candy. By all accounts, the actors’ personalities mirror these characters. Martin shares Neal’s shyness and neuroticism. Candy, reportedly one of the nicest men in Hollywood, had a heart of gold and Del’s childlike kindness. Like Del, Candy felt a constant impetus to please. He craved feedback and wanted audiences to love him, and he may not have realized he accomplished that mission long before he died. Planes has a special place in my heart because it’s the first movie I remember seeing in my life. (Why my otherwise-cartoonishly-overprotective parents showed me this movie at age 5, I have no idea.) I couldn’t remember “Neal” or “Del,” but I’d tell anyone who’d listen about the antics of “Steve Martin” and “John Candy.” Even as a pre-teen, with a brain a quarter of the volume of a football, I knew.
To this day, the film itself feels authentic in a way that belies the escapism and selfishness of the 80s. Hughes wrote what he experienced, to the point that his sets (and settings) all resembled places he’d visited. Like Mr. Mom and She’s Having a Baby, Planes draws from Hughes’s own past in advertising (and probably the Great Blizzard of 1979, which happened while Hughes still juggled writing with his advertising day-job). One can see in Neal Page how Hughes agonized over time spent away from his then-growing family. That speaks to Hughes’s core strength: his relatable, sentimental depictions of American life. Martin went so far as to liken him to Norman Rockwell: a bold but conceivable comparison. Planes, Trains and Automobiles has become the quintessential Thanksgiving movie and one of the best comedies ever made. Planes, like Thanksgiving and the very concept of comedy, deals with understanding what we all have in common.
1 It sure explains the racism in Sixteen Candles, though.
2 The biographical information on Hughes comes from this book, which I recommend!