Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a 1987 American comedy film released by Paramount Pictures. It was written, produced and directed by John Hughes. The film stars Steve Martin as Neal Page, a high-strung advertising executive, who meets Del Griffith, played by John Candy, an eternally sunny, overly talkative, well-meaning, but accident-prone shower curtain ring salesman who seems to live in a world governed by a different set of rules. They share a three-day odyssey of misadventures trying to get Neal home to Chicago from New York City in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Neal Page is trying to return to his family for Thanksgiving in Chicago after being on a business trip in New York. His journey is doomed from the outset, with Del Griffith (John Candy) interfering first by leaving his trunk by the side of the road causing Neal to trip when racing an uncredited character (Kevin Bacon) for a cab, then moments later again by inadvertently snatching the taxi cab that Neal had bought from an attorney just before. The two inevitably pair up later and begin an error-prone adventure to help Neal get back to his home.
In 1987 John Hughes took a huge risk. The man who had spent three years profiling the lives of teenagers did the unthinkable: He wrote and directed two movies featuring adults: She’s Having a Baby and Planes, Trains & Automobiles.
She’s Having a Baby is a pleasant comedy, but PTA is an absolute gem and one of the 1980s’ most overlooked movies, a mixture of human drama and dizzying goofiness that qualifies it for timeless status. I should know. A co-worker and I continually quote lines from this 17-year-old movie. At this point we could audition for a remake.
The movie stars Steve Martin as Neal Page, a Chicago ad executive who wants nothing more than to leave New York and to spend Thanksgiving with his family. That proves tricky. He can’t catch a cab (and nearly breaks his neck in the process), suffers through a flight delay and when he does board, gets bumped to coach. Frustrating Neal at each turn is Del Griffith (John Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman who is truly apologetic for stealing Neal’s cab, and through a flight cancellation becomes his companion on the trip from hell.
How bad is it? These guys travel in the back of a milk truck and that qualifies as a highlight. Neal tags along with Del solely out of necessity. Fastidious, snobby Neal is a walking Esquire fashion pictorial, while Del is a boisterous working class guy who loathes silence. Any attempt Neal attempt has to leave Del’s side he takes. Through coincidence – but increasingly out of compassion – he keeps coming back to the big lug and more disaster.
What’s amazing, especially after repeated viewings, is that both actors are playing such extremes, yet you’re never annoyed by them. Give Hughes credit for caring about his characters as people, especially Del, who we find out hides a secret behind his gregarious persona. The late Candy, always so underrated, gives his finest performance here, responding to Hughes’ calls for drama and comedy with ease and conviction. As for Neal, Hughes spares no expense at embarrassing him, while Martin acts like the sophisticated traveler, not changing out of his suit and treating a pay phone like it’s covered with Asian bird flu. It’s a joy to see him squirm.
The two stars’ dynamics would mean nothing without Hughes’ script, which passes the ultimate test: If you watch the movie with somebody will you repeatedly quote from it? In PTA they’re about 10 jumping off points: ‘Do you feel this vehicle is safe for highway driving?’ ‘Those aren’t pillows!!’ ‘If I wanted to laugh I’d go into the bathroom and watch you take a leak.’
For laughs, PTA is a very good movie. The performances of Martin and Candy and Hughes’ surprising sympathy for their characters make it great. If you don’t trust me, so be it. I’ll still be waiting to run lines with you.