Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is the kind of great movie that’s often overlooked because it seems so easy: a simple feel-good story, well-told, but not all that different outwardly from the millions of other buddy movies and road movies and holiday movies that follow the same basic outlines. It’s easy to dismiss as manipulative or sentimental when in fact it’s full of deep and powerful emotion. If this is manipulation, more filmmakers should wish they could manipulate viewers as skillfully as John Hughes does here.
It’s as stylistically accomplished as any of the more artistically respectable movies you could name, but that’s easy to overlook because the style is so subservient to the story and gags. But look how efficiently Hughes uses the medium. In the first few seconds, we get the whole story: Steve Martin in a long, boring meeting, glancing from his watch to his plane ticket to his boss ponderously puttering around between ad layouts. By the time he mouths “I’m going to be late,” it’s almost redundant.
That whole first section is almost entirely wordless. Hughes has two of the biggest stars of their generation at the height of their powers — Martin as uptight Neal Page and John Candy as the endlessly chattering, slovenly salesman Del Griffith — and he just lets them work. “We didn’t need dialogue,” says Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. “We had faces.” Well, Hughes recognizes his actors have those kinds of faces. Hughes doesn’t even need the whole face — when Martin and a cameoing Kevin Bacon face off over the last on-duty cab, a few quick-cut extreme close-ups of their eyes say all we need to know.
We see a hotel clerk switch Martin and Candy’s credit cards almost an hour before it becomes relevant. And then there’s storytelling choices so subtle they’re almost subliminal, what Guillermo Del Toro calls “eye protein” — the way Martin clasps his hands to show off his wedding band when he and Candy discuss their respective families.
Hughes has his flashier moments too — the spectacular car crash where Candy is briefly transformed into both a bugeyed skeleton and the devil, the overcranked kid running up and down the aisle of the bus, the heroes freezing solid like Jack at the end of The Shining when they’re forced to ride in the back of a pickup truck. And there’s the heightened slapstick violence, which Hughes is smart enough to slowly escalate. By the time Martin and Candy’s car catches on fire they barely even notice at first and then all they can do is laugh. And by the time Candy backs it through a motel wall, it barely even registers as out of the ordinary.
It’s a difficult balance to pull off, and you don’t have to look past Hughes’ own filmography to see how true that is. Roger Ebert rightly said his next movie, She’s Having a Baby, “begins with the simplest and most moving of stories and interrupts it with an amazing assortment of gimmicks” — a coordinated lawn mower dance. Bacon’s shock at learning his wife wants to get pregnant symbolized by a whiplash-inducing scene change to a fantasy sequence of him screaming on a rocket sled. A stage-lit scene of Bacon waiting in the hospital as his wife gives birth scored to Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” that looks so much like a bad music video I kept expecting the extras to mouth along to the vocals. It’s all such a confusion of fantasy sequences and fantastical imagery it’s impossible to tell what’s part of the story and what’s just a dream.
Even Hughes’ more celebrated classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off makes for a Goofus-and-Gallant pairing with Planes, especially in its own scene of a car backing through a wall when Cameron accidentally destroys his father’s priceless Ferrari. It’s a huge last-minute raising of the emotional stakes — setting up a never-fulfilled confrontation between Cameron and his abusive father who loves the car more than him — that the zany, frothy movie we’ve been watching for the last hour or so just hasn’t earned.
When Planes raises its stakes even later in the game, the film’s balance of the heightened and the grounded, the silly and the subtle, makes it land like a bomb. And where Bueller’s tonal shift came out of left field, Planes has already spent two hours building a pervasive sense of melancholy that makes its shocking revelation seem more natural the more you look at it.
Most of the credit for that goes to John Candy. In the endlessly quotable scene of Neal unloading on Del in the motel room (“And by the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea: have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!”), Martin’s mugging is going to attract all the attention, but look at the cutaways to Candy’s face. He’s giving an even more powerful, far subtler performance, apparently holding it together but on the verge of tears. It’s the same in the painfully awkward scene in the diner where Martin, who’s learned by this point to respect his sensitive travel partner’s feelings, tries and fails to once again extricate himself from him, this time without starting another fight.
Spoilers begin here.
The revelation that Del’s wife Marie, whose picture he carries all along the road, has been dead for seven years, is a combination of those two dreaded tropes, the Trauma Plot and the Woman in the Refrigerator. But somehow it works, because it’s not just milking tragedy for cheap drama, it’s revealing this comedy has been a tragedy the whole time.
Watching the movie again knowing where it’s going, it seems almost inevitable, and moments that seemed mundane at first become heavily weighted with grief. Del’s obnoxious chatterbox tendencies aren’t just the way he is. They’re his desperate attempt to fill the hole his widowerhood has left in his life.
And moments that already seemed emotional become even more so. I go back and forth on the effectiveness of Ira Newborn’s hopelessly dated synth-heavy score. But on this latest viewing, as Del sits alone outside the motel in the snow and his ruined car, having a one-sided conversation with Marie, it hit like the punch to the gut Del received the scene before. And when, after all their fighting, Neal opens the door for him, it’s a moment of grace and kindness that hits just as hard. In their warm, cabinlike motel room, Hughes pulls off the tricky maneuver of writing a conversation that isn’t necessarily funny in and of itself, but that we can still believe would make the characters laugh themselves silly.
That’s not the only trick Candy pulls off in his performance. By all accounts, the audience should find his company just as painful as Martin does. But it’s impossible not to love him, especially when he’s dancing along to “The Mess Around” by Ray Charles in one of the most purely joyful moments in film history.
Like so much in this movie, Del’s character is encapsulated in a single, simple moment, after he stumbles on Neal after he’s been clocked by a cabbie he made the mistake of choosing to vent his Sisyphean frustrations on. Del materializes, able to get a rental car where Neal had failed, and the cabbie yells at him to get out of the way. “What is your problem, you insensitive asshole? Can’t you see we’ve got an injured man down here?” and asks for the cabbie’s help loading Neal into the car, giving him the chance to injure him even further. That’s Del — kind but earthy, eager to help but deeply unhelpful.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles transcends sappy sentimentality because Hughes genuinely cares about these characters. And that level of care extends to their whole world. Anyone who’s ever embarked on a midwestern road trip like Neal and Del’s will resonate with the reality of the slushy interstates and the taxidermied animals and other frontier kitsch. All the locations are fully realized down to the grime on the train station window.
It’s also a bit of a snapshot of a vanished world, as all those mom-and-pop motels and diner have been subsumed into international franchises in the intervening thirty years. They may be tacky with their hand-painted, cross-eyed bull-head-shaped room numbers and velvet Roy Orbison, but at least they’re personally tacky instead of corporately tacky.
This real world is populated by real people, and Hughes walks a delicate tightrope between exhausting quirkiness and lived-in specificity with background characters like Doobie and his Taxiola, the unremarked-on old hillbilly with his box full of mice, or the wonderfully weird one-scene performance by Jurassic Park’s Martin Ferrero as a hotel clerk (“These aren’t…these aren’t credit…cards.”)
That’s what makes it such a perfect holiday movie — Thanksgivings come and Thanksgivings go, and there’s always something new to discover here. On my last viewing, which must be something like my fifth or sixth, I laughed the hardest at the subtlest jokes, like the way John Candy says, redundantly, but emphatically as the pair count up their assets and he lists a gift card to “a seven outlet chain in the Pacific Northwest,” that “unfortunately, it does us no good here!” If that’s not the sign of a great movie, I don’t know what is.
For an even deeper dive into the details of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, check out my article on Looper!