We all have our little rituals that guide us through our life. These are the things we do every day, week, month or year depending upon what it is we’re talking about. For every year since I was a small child around this time a year when it is approaching the Thanksgiving holiday I always make it a point to block out some time to sit down with my entire family and watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. It is one of those movies I find I simply cannot do without. I’ve long since memorized all the jokes and every scene within it so nothing really catches me off guard to get a surprise chuckle out of me anymore (which makes it doubly more fun when we get someone new over who somehow hasn’t seen this movie before) although there is that fond laugh of remembrance when a favorite scene pops up in front of me that keeps me coming back.
What makes the movie a Thanksgiving tradition of course is the fact that the main story centers around Neil Page’s journey from his job in New York, to his home and awaiting family in Chicago, which he hopes to make in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Along the way of course he runs into the classic cliché of the “travel partner from hell” in Del Griffith. He first meets Griffith in New York where he accidentally steals a cab he had just had just been conned into paying seventy-five dollars for (after a foot race with Kevin Bacon in a great little cameo), and then, of course, he winds up seated next to him at the terminal, and on the plane during which he gets his ear talked off to the point of no return. During the course of the movie Page and Griffith will, as the title suggests, share many mishaps and setbacks as they traverse the country through various forms of commuter travel.
Neil Page is played here by Steve Martin in a role that is perfectly suited for him. Page is a man with a family and a conscience, but he’s a very neat and orderly, and tightly wound kind of man without a lot of patience for things that do not go exactly his way, which naturally makes him the perfect comedic foil for a movie such as this, and a character such as Del Griffith.
Griffith, played by John Candy, is the exact opposite of Page in most every imaginable way. He’s talkative, where Neil is more subdued, messy where Neil is uber-organized, and outgoing, where Neil is more reserved and private. Their two professions naturally play a role in their personality types. Page works in an office building where he has to use his respectability and the ability to keep a tight lipped low profile in order to climb the corporate ladder there. Del, who is a salesman, must rely on his wits and his outgoing people skills to survive in his world. And so with that the movie, through various contrivances of plot, makes sure to keep these two men trapped together for the entire duration of their journey and most of the humor just writes itself after that.
There are so many classic scenes in this movie that it is impossible for me to review it without just resorting to a basic listing of some of my favorites. Of course there is the famous “Those aren’t pillows” scene that everyone quotes and remembers, and the scene with Steve Martin at the rental car agency after being forced to walk across a runway when his car was not where it was supposed to be and then angrily delivering his famous f-word laden tirade to the insanely chipper sales lady behind the counter, who delivers the perfect two word response to him at the end of said tirade. There’s also the classic scene where Page and Griffith narrowly escape death going the wrong way on the interstate while skidding in between two oncoming semi’s while Page hallucinates Griffith’s character as the devil laughing at him while they are about to be killed.
I think, in the end, what keeps drawing me back to this movie time and time again is its unmatchable heart. Del Griffith is one of those characters that I cannot let go of. He evokes such empathy in me and has done so ever since I was a child first watching this film that I still get a little misty eyed thinking about his sad, lonely journey through life, always playing the happy go lucky shower curtain ring’s salesman. John Candy was born to play this role. He perfectly captures Del at both his bombastic best, and at his more solemn introspective moments.
On the surface Planes, Trains, and Automobiles might seem to be just one of a dozen cookie cutter road comedies, but it’s in the small quiet moments that it really rises above the limitations of that genre and becomes the truly great film that it is. The scene in the motel room where Steve Martin’s character has had all he can stand of Griffith’s idiosyncrasies and finally blows up at him in a lesser movie would have been the start of a ridiculous argument between the two of them, or would lead to more hi-jinks, but here we see Del Griffith not as some wild caricature whose sole purpose is to create havoc for his fellow traveler. He’s instead, a real person who is truly wounded by Neil Page’s stinging diatribe. He doesn’t comeback at Neil with a witty retort, he simply lays bare his soul, saying in essence what I’ve been writing here, that he is not some lifeless puppet, but the real genuine article. What you see is what you get. Neil Page likewise also shows great humanity in the scene, going from explosively angry to stunned silence and contemplation in a manner of seconds. It is a scene I have scene dozens of time and it is one of my all time favorites from any movie.
Or take the scene where Del is sitting alone in the destroyed rental car outside another motel due to once again burning his bridges with Neil and not having enough money to pay for a room. Del Griffith is, unlike many other manic movie characters, fully self aware of his dilemma, as he attests to in his almost prayer like conversation to his deceased wife, Marie detailing how he’d “done it again”, finding someone whose company he truly enjoyed and, having once again gone overboard, pushed that would be friend away. Martin’s character again shows great kindness here by offering Del his motel room to share again, in spite of all the trouble he’s caused him thus far. They then spend the rest of the night running up a considerable mini-bar tab, and talking about the things in life they care the most about, their wives. Finally, there’s the heartbreaking scene at the train station where Del finally admits to Neil that his wife has been dead for eight years, and Neil once again rising to the occasion offers to let him spend thanksgiving with him and his family. Yes, it’s melodramatic, but it’s played so perfectly and acted so wonderfully that each time I watch it, it remains as effective a scene as the first time I saw it.
My daughter, who will turn two years old this coming February has an equal parts adorable and annoying habit of pulling off every single DVD on our movie shelf and then scattering them on the floor. And inevitably every time she does, she for whatever reason always winds up picking up my copy of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, pointing to the John Candy character on the cover and repeating “Dada” while walking around smiling, cute as a button. I never thought I bore that strong a resemblance to the man myself, but in any event, I’ll take it as a compliment.
This movie has been imitated countless times in what could almost be said to be near remakes. Some of those remakes have gone on to become cult classics in their own right such as the great ‘Tommy Boy’ with Chris Farley and David Spade taking on the roles of Martin and Candy. The most recent movie I can think of that shamelessly rips this film off is Due Date, in which Zach Galifianakis plays the role of the manic “travel partner from hell”… Good as both of those movies were, neither Farley, who came closer admittedly, nor Galifianakis captures the true spirit and soul that John Candy exuded here in spades. John Hughes of course deserves a lot of credit here, as he directed this movie in the middle of an amazing string of legendary comedies in the mid to late 1980s. It was in this movie though I’d say, and not in any of his more teenage centered ones, that he finally struck the perfect balance between heart warming sentimentality and gut bustlingly good humor. This is a movie most definitely not to be missed.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles gets a five out of five: EXCELLENT.