Movie Review : Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
* dedicated to Jimmy Callaway *
There is a fine line between a good movie and a memorable movie. Iconic movie director John Hughes expertly surfed that line in the eighties with movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which spoke to people mostly by making high school a more exciting and life-affirming place than it really is. These movies are widely considered to be classics, but they're not the movies I think about when I think about John Hughes. I think about 1987's Planes, Trains & Automobiles, starring Steve Martin and John Candy. It might not have occurred to you if you haven't seen it, but I'm here to change that.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles is the story of Neal Page (the immortal Steve Martin), a successful but cynical and self-important marketing executive traveling from New York to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with his family. He meets an obnoxiously good-natured shower curtain ring salesman named Del Griffith (John Candy) on his way to the airport. Del wants to befriend and help Neal as much as he's causing him trouble with his clumsy and overbearing nature. When their flight gets snowed-in in Wichita Kansas, Neal and Del become companions of fortune and band together, trying to reach Chicago in time for Thanksgiving.
What makes Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a Buddhist allegory. That's why it feels so different from other slapstick comedies from a decade known for its stupid slapstick comedies. See, Neal Page is this conventionally successful man, right? High-profile job, social status, a loving family, etc. But he isn't happy. He's a cynical mess who loathes and rejects anything he can't control. Anything he hasn't carefully planned and decided himself like: spending Thanksgiving away from work, with his family. Enters Del Griffith, a fat, rosy-cheeked man who vaguely resembles an opulent Buddha statue, who's sole purpose is to strip Neal from everything he takes for granted.
And Neal spends the entire movie stripping himself of things he built his personality upon: comfort, certitude, control, etc. It is symbolized in the movie by gradually losing parts of his business suit. The nastier and more cynical Neal gets towards others who refuse to allow him control on his journey (allegorical and literal), the more parts of his suit he loses: fedora, necktie, briefcase, etc. It's not until he (allegorically) invites Buddha in his life and in his home and accepts the world as it is, that Neal can recuperate his business suit. At least, this is the explanation I gathered from him having it again in the last scene. Doesn't make any sense otherwise as he's wearing layman's clothes the scene right before that, which symbolizes his complete transformation.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles is not just a deep movie. It's also funny as hell, which is why it works to well. One of my favorite scenes at beginning is this inexplicable Kevin Bacon cameo, where he races Steve Martin for a taxi. Bacon disappears in the cab, never to be seen again, but it's just pure eighties slapstick genius. If Planes, Trains & Automobiles made it to 2018 and warranted a review on this site, it's because it uses absurdist and slapstick comedy in order to make a deep and still very pertinent point about the way we interact with the world. This is a good movie, it deserves at least another thirty years of that quiet cult status it has achieved.