Aaron Widmar
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Best Road Trip Movies: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Review

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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Review 3

Martin and Candy share a bed in one of the most iconic scenes from this 1987 comedy. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Within the road trip blueprint, there are multiple sub-divisions that have become a part of our cinematic cannon: the boy-meets-girl scenario where the two go from bickering to falling in love, the quintessential American family goes on a vacation that goes horribly awry, and the mismatched adults learning to overcome their pet peeves and form a philia bond of brotherly love.

If there’s one film that defines that last category, it’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

The only successful John Hughes film to focus on adults, Planes features John Candy in his late-1980’s prime and Steve Martin when he still had an ounce of comedic subtlety. The classic comedy holds up remarkably well over time and, despite many imitators, remains unmatched for reasons we’ll discuss in our review.

Related: Get an overview of one of the most reliable vehicles on the road

The Plot

Neal Page (Martin) is the average white collar American who’s been burned by the corporate system. He suffers from incessant bad luck and, with Thanksgiving arriving in a few days, wants to simply return home to his family. On his way to the airport, he meets the well-meaning but overly social and naive Del Griffith (Candy), a travelling shower curtain ring salesman.

After their flight from New York is diverted to Witchita due to a blizzard at their Chicago destination, the two unlikely partners begin a road trip to Chicago. Unfortunately, the bad luck continues and, as every mode of transportation fails them, the two opposites remain at each other’s throats.

As one would expect, Neal becomes a nicer and more patient person by the end, realizing that the Thanksgiving holiday is not just about what blessings you have, but sharing those blessings with others.

The Vehicle(s)

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Review

A charred 1986 Chrysler LeBaron Town & Country convertible  Photo: Paramount Pictures

Obviously, Del and Neal’s transportation hijinks involve a whole variety of wheels: a plane that gets grounded due to weather, a train that breaks down in the rural countryside, a bus packed with loud people, a taxi that steals luggage, and a rental car that ends up ablaze. In one trip, they essentially exhaust every mode of transportation available (we couldn’t see the two of them sharing a motorcycle), as each option repeatedly fails them.

Some of the best gags of the film happen in the green, woodie 1986 Chrysler LeBaron Town & Country convertible that Del rents for the second half of their journey to Chicago. It’s hard not to laugh at the motorized adjustable seat, driving on the wrong side of the road, and the car catching on fire. While its coloring and design are dated, it proves to not only be a vehicle in which the two of them can bond over their near-death experience, but it also removes them from other people to spend time getting to know each other.

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Owen’s 1969 Chevrolet C-10 pickup truck  Photo: Paramount Pictures

The other vehicle worth noting is the pieced-together, red-and-grey 1969 Chevrolet C-10 pickup truck that Gus’s (one of Del’s many friends along the way) son Owen drives. It’s reflective of the rural locale outside of Neal’s comfort zone in which he finds himself, and Owen being one of the many bizarre locals they encounter. As Neal and Del hitch a ride on the hay-filled truck bed, nearly attacked by the owner’s ferocious dog, the viewer once again sees the well-meaning intent of Del to call in a favor which ends up unfavorably for the two travelers.

Essentially, every vehicle is arranged by Del’s good intentions, ending up being more trouble than it’s worth and increasing Neal’s exasperation.

Our Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Review

What makes this classic so timeless (despite its dated synth music and irrelevant pop culture references) and universally likable is that the majority of situations are relatable: hailing a cab, getting your wallet stolen, not having a towel in the bathroom, and being stuck with someone who gets on your nerves. The emotions these situations evoke are completely understandable. Who hasn’t had their cab taken by Kevin Bacon at some point?

For being the irritating simpleton, Del isn’t that obnoxious. He just triggers every pet peeve of Neal’s. Neither are unlikable people, really.

Rather, the laughs come from the constant barrage of bad luck on the main characters and their understated reactions to how terribly the situations spiral out of control. Or the array of bizarre supporting characters they meet. But in and of themselves, neither Del or Neal are unlikable people.

Planes also operates on the basic foundation that comedy is based on misery, and quite often it’s Martin who will bear the painful consequences of Candy’s actions. Neither of their actions are intentionally malevolent.

All of these comedic essentials are missed in today’s over-the-top and embarrassingly flawed imitators (we’re looking at you, Due Date). And, that’s why Planes has the right to truly own that lump in your throat for the last fifteen minutes of screen time.

If you haven’t seen it before, be sure you rent it for Thanksgiving this year. If you have, take that journey all over again.

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John Candy realizes this will be the same comedic face Steve Martin will make for the next 30 years. Photo: Paramount Pictures

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Aaron is unashamed to be a native Clevelander and the proud driver of a 1995 Saturn SC-2 (knock on wood). He gleefully utilizes his background in theater, literature, and communication to dramatically recite his own articles to nearby youth. Mr. Widmar happily resides in Dayton, Ohio with his magnificent wife, Vicki, but is often on the road with her exploring new destinations. Aaron has high aspirations for his writing career but often gets distracted pondering the profound nature of the human condition and forgets what he was writing… See more articles by Aaron.