Review: ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ (1987) | Pop Culture Crossing

            John Hughes’ 1987 situational comedy, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, is a film that encapsulates the experiences and emotions felt when travel plans go awry. Hughes’ writing and direction combined with the comedic high jinks of Steve Martin and John Candy results in a film that will make you simultaneously cringe, nod your head in agreement, and laugh-out-loud. If you are looking for a comedy, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a great choice.

            The film follows Neal Page, a New York marketer who is kept late at the office and has to rush to the airport in an attempt to make his Thanksgiving flight to Chicago. In addition to being on a tight schedule, Page experiences several obstacles in getting to the airport – namely his taxi is co-opted by an individual with a large traveling trunk. These difficulties are only the tip of the iceberg, however. A winter storm alters Page’s travel plans and he incidentally becomes a traveling companion with the man who stole his cab in New York, Del Griffith. Luckily, both men are headed to Chicago, but they are faced with countless other complications and troubles along the way.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

            Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ pacing works well given the narrative framework of the film. The plot is well contained which results in an even-tempered pace. Viewers know that both Page and Griffith started in New York and are travelling to Chicago. This makes their hindrances bearable as the end has been clearly defined. Yet there is no guarantee that the two men will, in fact, reach their destination; nevertheless it complements the pacing quite well.

            Despite being a comedy, there are a few instances when the men’s troubles seem to drag on without end. Fortunately, this concern and critique can be remedied by remembering this film brings Murphy’s Law, which states, “If it can go wrong, it will go wrong,” to life.[1] Assessing the pacing in this manner should help viewers reconcile the pacing and not view it as wholly tedious.  

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

            Key tonal themes include not only broad comedy, but a comedy of errors, though some of the errors are out of the characters’ control, they are blunders nevertheless. This correlates with the motif of sustained frustration in a traveling setting. Page and Griffith are often faced with problems that are out of their control and they adapt to their circumstances, often after giving hilarious reactions.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

            Another important tonal element and lesson in the film is to not judge others simply because they are different than you and respond to challenging situations differently than you would. This is nicely exemplified by the movie’s character dynamics. Comedies may attempt to include superficially profound elements, but the genre is notorious for shoehorning them into their respective stories. It is reassuring to have such a meaningful, organic moral in a comedy film.

            Steve Martin and John Candy provide iconic performances as Page and Griffith, respectively. Martin’s face acting and reactions to the seemingly endless string of problems are very relatable, particularly if viewers have travelled extensively. Griffith’s jovial innocence, as portrayed by Candy, is also masterfully done. In some scenes audiences will likely have similar responses to Griffith as Page does throughout their misadventures.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

            The on-screen chemistry between Martin and Candy is exquisite. The balance between opposing characters, the natural delivery of the dialogue, and comedic timing are hallmarks of the film. Further, the character development itself is surprisingly wonderful and makes for an endearing third act. It is clear that Planes, Trains and Automobiles is not simply a comedy with flat characters and cheap dialogue. The writing and depth in the movie are components that are to be appreciated.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

             The cinematography is great. The reactions and comedy exhibited by both Page and Griffith are expertly captured in a great amalgam of shots, be they close-ups, extreme close-ups, or traditional medium shots. The sequence with semi-trucks on a highway also features great, noteworthy lighting.

            Planes, Trains and Automobiles has strong production design. Whether it is the wardrobe, a revolting motel bathroom, airplane cabin, or charred chassis of a sedan, all of these elements add to the humor and overall experience of the film. Some comedies are low-budget and opt for lower-level production design, but that cannot be said of this movie.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

            John Hughes’ direction and writing of the film are terrific. The excellent performances he is able to extract from Martin and Candy, their wonderful chemistry, and the iconic, relatable plot are things that should be lauded. Hughes’ writing is strong, too. As mentioned above, some parts may seem like they protracted, but they actually relate to the over-the-top antics contained in the movie.

            In the end, the strong writing, laugh-out-loud moments, relatable story, character growth, and exemplary performances result in Planes, Trains and Automobiles being a quintessential travel comedy. Even if you have not traveled much, this film is bound to entertain. If you have traveled extensively, then you will value the comedic approach to situations you have likely faced yourself.

Back Matter:[2]

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Production: Paramount Pictures; Hughes Entertainment  

Director: John Hughes

Producer: John Hughes

Screenwriter: John Hughes

Director of Photography: Donald Peterman

Editor: Paul Hirsch

Set Decoration: Janes Bogart; Linda Spheeris

Music: Ira Newborn

Costume Design: April Ferry

Budget: ca. $30,000,000

Release Date: November 25, 1987 (USA)

Cinematographic Process: Spherical

Laboratory: Technicolor

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Copyright Holder: Paramount Pictures Corporation

Cast: Steven Martin; John Candy; Laila Robins; Michael McKean; Dylan Baker; Carol Bruce; Olivia Burnette; Diana Douglas; Martin Ferrero; Larry Hankin; Richard Herd

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Rating: R; Descriptors: N/A[3]

Running Time: 1 hours and 33 minutes (93 mins.)