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November 26, 2015

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

by Franz Patrick


Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Neal Page (Steve Martin), in New York City for a business trip, planned to arrive in Chicago two days before Thanksgiving to be with his family. However, the moment he steps outside the client’s building to catch a flight, things begin to go horribly awry: his taxi is taken by someone else, his first-class ticket turns out to be no good at all, the plane is diverted to land in Wichita due to severe weather conditions… And yet these series of unfortunate events are only the beginning.

Written and directed by John Hughes, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” hits a magic spot of being holiday-themed movie and a great comedy, full of laughs from beginning to end without sacrificing its quality due to varying shifts in tone. Equally impressive is the picture’s ability to take risks when it comes to the different types of humor. While it is mainly driven by situational and physical comedy, laughs can also be derived from mordant and character comedy.

The latter aspect works well due to Martin and and John Candy’s performances. Candy plays a man named Del Griffith who sells shower curtain rings for a living and is a perfect foil for Martin’s uptight and intolerant Neal, vice-versa. Although having two opposite personalities forced to spend time with one another is no stranger to comedies, the manner in which these characters interact and bond is special.

We get the impression that Neal and Del are essentially good men when apart but when together, the worst is brought out in one of them—not both. Having one character function as a wall against one who reacts in the most dramatic ways in addition to having the duo’s dynamics change subtly throughout the film—not just in the end just because conflicts must be resolved—becomes the heart of the picture. We end up caring about both of them. Notice the emotional impact of the final two or three scenes.

In terms of execution, one element that stands out is the way the writer-director utilizes the camera as a way to see through a character’s eyes. Take note of the sequence that takes place in the streets of NYC as Neal becomes increasingly desperate to book a cab. The camera adopts a subjective view—its movement brisk, energetic, full of alarm. Another sequence involves Neal noticing there is only one bed in the motel room that he and Del have booked. It makes sense that the former is shown to be highly competitive due to the nature of his occupation. Not once is Del shown to be as aggressive.

In addition to its perfectly cast duo, leading performances, and sharp writing, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” offers a number of colorful characters that never overstay their welcome. The car rental agent (Edie McClurg), the stereotypical hillbilly with a pregnant wife (Dylan Baker), and the man who races Neal for a taxi (Kevin Bacon) are especially hilarious. The movie offers that warm, special feeling of holiday, friendship, and family—seemingly easy to accomplish but many movies of its type end up floundering.

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