Planes, Trains & Automobiles

Director: John Hughes
Screenplay: John Hughes
Stars: Steve Martin (Neal Page), John Candy (Del Griffith), Laila Robins (Susan Page), Michael McKean (State Trooper), Kevin Bacon (Taxi Racer), Dylan Baker (Owen), Edie McClurg (Car Rental Agent)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1987
Country: U.S.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles
Planes, Trains & Automobiles

John Hughes’s Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a road comedy about two men trying desperately to get home for Thanksgiving and having every obstacle imaginable thrown in their way. The men are played, in a feat of pitch-perfect casting, by Steve Martin and John Candy as complete opposites who, at the beginning of the film, don’t know each other, but by the end have found that they have more in common than they thought.

Martin plays Neal Page, a fastidious, neatly dressed, anal-retentive advertising executive. Candy is Del Griffith, a large, overstuffed, overbearing shower-curtain ring salesman (“Director of Sales, Shower Curtain Ring Division,” as he puts it) whose cheap blue parka and large travel trunk provide a stark contrast to Neal’s stylish gray trench coat and leather hanging bag. But, their obvious class differences are just the surface. Neal and Del’s approaches to life are miles apart, and the clash between those approaches shows that each is flawed in its own way: Neal is too reserved and intolerant, while Del is too boisterous and eager-to-please. When each admits at the end of the movie that he is “a little wiser” from their experiences together, it is a genuine moment of truth telling.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is primarily a comedy, a travel farce about how anything that can go wrong will go wrong, regardless of the mode of transportation (hence, the title). Yet, the reason it worked so well when first released in 1987 and the reason it continues to work well is that Hughes invested his ill-matched protagonists with real human emotions and foibles. Neal and Del are character types to be sure, but the way they are written and played within the broad parameters of those types makes them endearing and unique. Martin and Candy both play to their strengths, and each delivers one of the best comedic performances of his career (Candy’s is especially good, and its lack of attention during awards season is prime evidence of how comedic acting is rarely recognized by the Oscars).

Hughes, who was, at the time, known primarily for writing and directing effective and smart teen dramedies like Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), is astute at mixing comedy and drama. There are moments of absolute hilarity scattered throughout, including the infamous sequence in which Neal and Del end up having to share a double bed in a cheap motel in Wichita, Kansas, and they wake up in the morning curled together (their bickering throughout the movie is consistently reminiscent of an old married couple) and discover that Del’s hand is not, as he thinks at first, “between two pillows.” The best scene, however (which is also the one responsible for the film’s R-rating), involves Neal, fed up beyond control, unleashing an F-bomb-laced diatribe to a chirpy rental car agent (Edie McClurg) after the company deserts him in their vast parking lot without a rental car. It is a powerful and hilarious moment of catharsis.

Yet, it has bittersweet and honestly dramatic moments, as well. In another movie, these scenes might feel forced, but because Martin and Candy ensure that Neal and Del are three-dimensional human characters of flesh and blood, they work. Take, for example, the moment in the Wichita hotel room when Martin becomes so fed up with Del’s irritating traits and habits (using up all the towels in the bathroom, spilling beer on the bed, smoking in the room, clearing his sinuses in the middle of night) that he snaps and lets Del know exactly what he thinks of him and his boring anecdotes. “Didn't you get a clue when I started reading the vomit bag?” he exclaims.

The scene works in a number of ways that set up our understanding of the characters for the rest of the movie. Del is visibly hurt by Neal’s rant, and Candy perfectly delivers a short, concise reply that shows how he understands his own shortcomings, but is still a proud man with respect for himself. At the same time, the scene forces Neal to realize his own snobbery, and the fact that he doesn’t leave tells us a great deal about his capacity, though not often realized, for empathy and understanding. Interestingly, in another movie this might be the dramatic climax, but Hughes chooses to stage the meltdown/confrontation early on, which allows it to hang in the back of our minds and frame the ensuing comedy and drama.

Thus, even when the story begins to reach moments of high absurdity, it still keeps a toe on the ground because of the characters. Hughes manages to heap every imaginable indignity on his intrepid travelers over two days: They are stuck in the back of a pickup truck in sub-zero temperatures; their train breaks down and they have to hike a mile and a half to the highway; they’re stuck on a bus in which a couple is all but having sex in the seat next to them; they go the wrong way down the highway, narrowly avoiding death in the form of two oncoming 18-wheelers, only to have their car then catch on fire. The humor comes not only from the outrageous nature of these situations, but in the unexpected ways in which Neal and Deal react to them and each other.

So, despite a relatively brief running time of 92 minutes, by the final moments we feel like we really know these characters. The final scenes are somewhat melodramatic, but it’s hard not to be affected by them because Hughes has earned the tears. To have ended the movie on a comic note would have undermined all the work he and his two actors had done to make Neal and Del memorable people, rather than just character types. Planes, Trains & Automobiles is certainly funny, but it is also a moving story that anyone who has ever recognized his or her own shortcomings will understand.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish, Portuguese
  • “Getting There is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains And Automobiles” featurette
  • “John Hughes: The Voice of a Generation” featurette
  • “Heartbreak and Triumph: The Legacy of John Hughes” featurette
  • “John Hughes For Adults” featurette
  • “A Tribute to John Candy” featurette
  • Deleted scene
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateOctober 10, 2017

    To my eye, the transfer on this 30th Anniversary Blu-ray is the same one that previously appeared on Paramount’s 2012 Blu-ray. The high-def presentation is impressively sharp, textured, and well detailed (I had never noticed, for example, the subtle pattern on Neal’s gray suit). Black levels look great, maintaining solid consistency in the nighttime scenes, which dominate a good portion of the film’s second half. The 5.1 surround soundtrack is the same lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mix, which sounds quite good, with the dialogue isolated in the front soundstage and the surrounds reserved for the busy traffic of downtown New York, the roar of jet engines, and that oh-so-late-’80s musical score. This disc also includes all of the same supplements from the previous Blu-ray, many of which date back to the 2009 “Those Aren’t Pillows!” DVD edition. Among these are “Getting There is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” a 25-minute featurette that is comprised primarily of footage from an airport-themed press conference with John Hughes, Steve Martin, and John Candy promoting the film; “John Hughes for Adults,” a brief 4-minute featurette about Hughes’ turn to more adult-oriented comedies in the late ’80s after his string of teen movie hits; “A Tribute to John Candy,” another short 4-minute featurette paying homage to the late great comedic actor; and a deleted scene involving Neal and Del’s meals on the airplane (now presented in high def). Also included are two featurettes about John Hughes that originally appeared on the 2012 Blu-ray: “John Hughes: The Voice of a Generation,” which focuses primarily on his teen-oriented films, and “Heartbreak and Triumph: The Legacy of John Hughes,” which focuses more broadly on his career and influence. Both run about 25 minutes in length and feature interviews with a number of Hughes’s collaborators, including actors Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck, Jon Cryer, Lea Thompson, and Michael McKean, producer Lauren Shuler-Donner, and director Howard Deutch.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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