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The Destination of ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’
A comedy finds its heart at the end of the road.
The holiday season approaches, so now’s a good time to rewatch Planes, Trains & Automobiles, the 1987 John Hughes comedy starring Steve Martin and John Candy.
It’s a tale as old as Homeric epics: Man tries to go home. But instead of confronting the Cyclopes or Circe, Neal Page (Martin) must face all the headaches of late 20th-century transportation … and one shower-curtain-ring salesman named Del Griffith (Candy). Neal just wants to get home in time for Thanksgiving, but everything that can go wrong does indeed go wrong. His only ally, much to his initial frustration, is the annoyingly affable Del, who often hinders as much as he helps.
The movie presents a classic buddy comedy setup, and this one strikes a delicate balance as it successfully avoids tipping over into obnoxiousness. Del needs to be annoying enough that we don’t hate Neal when he blows up at him, but Del also needs to be innocent enough that we don’t hate him either. John Candy pulls it off masterfully, tempering Del’s lack of self-awareness with warmth and sincerity.
Neal, meanwhile, serves as the movie’s punching bag. Nothing goes right for the poor guy, and anyone who’s ever traveled can put themselves in his shoes and empathize with his numerous frustrations. And no one plays frustration quite like Steve Martin.
What really sells the movie, though, is that it’s not just the surface-level comedy—the real meat is the subtext that doesn’t reveal itself until the end (which I am about to spoil, for those of you who are decades behind on your John Hughes movies).
While Neal is trying to get home, Del is searching for a home. His wife, the love of his life, died eight years ago, and now he truly has nowhere to go outside of his sales circuit. Despite all the friction, his budding friendship with Neal means a great deal to him. Along the way, he doesn’t just help Neal get home—he helps him loosen up and opens him up to new experiences.
And at the very end, when Neal invites Del into his home and introduces him to his family, it’s cathartic. We see how much Del craves basic human connection and a sense of belonging, and after all that work he puts into assisting a total stranger, he finds what he’s been looking for.
Without that ending, Planes, Trains & Automobiles would have had its share of amusing moments, but it’s so much better because all that transportation actually arrives somewhere.
Plus, while Neal’s journey is interminable to him, the length is near perfect for the audience—a tight 93 minutes. Right on time.
And now let’s take a trip back to the 1920s …
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