Planes, Trains & Automobiles
d. John Hughes / 1987 / USA / 92 mins
John Hughes’ legacy is one of comedy. However, although the eighties saw him write and direct teen films such as The Breakfast Club, Weird Science and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Planes, Trains and Automobiles proved to be his foray into a slightly more mature (but no less irreverant) market and a highpoint of his career.
Parodied and re-imagined but never improved upon (I’m looking at you, Due Date), Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the quintessential odd-couple road movie. John Hughes tells a simple tale that’s light on narrative flourishes but keeps up speed with the help of terrific dialogue, multidimensional characterisation and excellent pacing. Perfect casting sees both its leads at their finest with the irreplaceable John Candy playing Del Griffith, shower-curtain-ring salesman and Steve Martin as the buttoned up, credit card dependant straight man, Neal Page.
When the two strangers’ plane is diverted, Del takes it upon himself to deliver Neal from Wichita to Chicago, barrelling across the country; the ticking-clock-plot being Neal’s Thanksgiving dinner and the hope of spending the day with his family. Tensions flare as the calamity prone Del tests the limits of Neal’s sanity and as the story evolves, both predictably peel off a few layers and come to terms with a few home truths.
Hughes keeps the occasionally humdrum story on track with the basic necessities of good film-making. Fantastic casting means that Candy gives the most poignant and hilarious performance of his career whilst Martin shows his worth in a role that sees him shed his type-casting and play it “straight”, a change that lends his comedy more subtlety and dramatic weight. Hughes’ direction keeps things interesting with occasional bouts of surrealism and visual gags, peppered with sharp writing and snappy quips that are broken up with some truly memorable monologues. A verbal attack delivered by Martin sees great use of adult content that must surely have raised the film’s rating by quite a few bars. It’s simple writing, but done with skill. The tempo remains interesting, Hughes hits all his beats with success and clearly has an ear for very human, revealing dialogue.
The surprise of the film, and what distinguishes Hughes as a writer and director worthy of note is the tenderness he affords his characters. A monumental bust-up that would serve as the turning point in the last act of lesser films appears here at the end of the first. Neal’s cruelty and dislike of Del is acknowledged right from the off and like the elephant in the room, the characters are well aware of their ability to verbally hurt one another, neither wasting time to conceal these thoughts from the audience. Only the film’s overly sentimental score unnecessarily underlines the dramatic nature of Del and Neal’s situation. But despite such hiccups, Hughes manages to layer his two leads in such a way that constantly reminds us of their needs, their faults and why ultimately, they prove inseparable.