Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Paramount has reissued the John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles in a Those aren't Pillows!" Edition that adds little more than a lenticular 3D slipcase cover to previous releases. Writer-director John Hughes passed away just three months ago, renewing interest in his stellar 80s string of box office hits. P,T&A teams the talented John Candy and Steve Martin in a frankly lazy comedy that Hughes admitted took him just a few days to write. Being a dedicated fan of Candy and Martin helps as the comedy here shows little of the sensitivity that Hughes brought to some of his earlier teen angst epics.
The situation is solid enough: Marketing man Neal Page (Steve Martin) wants to get home from a Manhattan meeting so as not to miss Thanksgiving, but his traveler's nightmare begins when a client (William Windom) wastes hours in silent indecision. From then on Page suffers the trials of Job, trying in vain to nab a taxi for the airport, and having to take a later flight anyway. By that time Chicago is snowed in and his plane is diverted to Wichita. For the next 36 hours Neal endures an unending plague of awful hotels and unhelpful travel aides. Car rentals don't work out, trains break down, and motel showers cut off in mid-shampoo.
The intended endearing comedy content comes with Del Griffith (John Candy) a garrulous busybody who Neal gets paired up with, more or less against his will. Del is an incredible slob and a bad-luck jinx; he scatters food and trash everywhere he goes, takes his socks off in crowded airplanes and in general is as uncouth as is possible. However he has a good heart, which is supposed to make all the difference.
This kind of travel horror story hasn't been seen since the (traumatic) The Out-of-Towners with Jack Lemmon. Neal is cheated out of a taxi and prodded into spending a fortune for transportation that doesn't work; both he and Del are robbed and what's left of his wallet is burned up in a car.
I suppose the key to enjoying Planes, Trains and Automobiles is simply to think of all the things that can go wrong on a trip -- John Hughes says his film was based on a crazy delayed flight he once experienced. Weather is the main problem here but I'll bet that chronic inconvenience and sometimes-criminal negligence is no longer a topic of mirth for thousands of Americans. With travelers stranded for days and forced to wait for hours in parked airplanes, passengers look fondly back at the days when airlines were regulated.
This kind of comedy is what remains of unpretentious older entertainments in which hapless comics went through crazy, exaggerated problems -- Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, Red Skelton. The first problem with Planes, Trains and Automobiles is that everything we see is fairly naturalistic. We want Neal to get home safe and it seems cruel, if not irresponsible to milk laughs out of Del driving the wrong way down a divided highway. Neal is almost run over and burned alive. None of this is really funny.
To make it worse, our hero really isn't an old-fashioned everyman; he isn't even a nice guy. Being the victim of a terrible circumstance doesn't entitle Neal to swamp a rental car clerk (Edie McClurg) with a tirade of profanity; he's even thrown his rental contract away. The movie also makes sure that Neal is confronted exclusively with nasty opportunists, like the lawyer who gouges him for a taxi (that someone else grabs), exaggerated hick truck drivers and various clerks that take unfair advantage. Neal throws frequent tantrums at Neal and his fate in general ... when all is said and done we're not sure we'd want this guy to come back to our Thanksgiving table.
Steve Martin and John Candy play these undemanding roles with ease -- Steve Martin is particularly good at expressing pent-up rage, and something about Candy makes him amusing even when the jokes are bad. These comics should be given prizes for putting up with low-class gags involving things like washing their faces with dirty underwear, and accidentally feeling up each other in bed. When the movie opts for a sentimental finish, with Neal bringing Del home like a lost puppy, audiences apparently respond. I, unfortunately, can't help wondering if Neal Page flies into abusive rages at home when things don't go well -- his idyllic family situation seems more than a mild cheat.
It's also more than sad to think of all the great roles the talented Martin and Candy never got, especially when Candy worked himself to death grinding out movies much less distinguished than this one. Come to think of it, each of these comics has only a couple of really memorable titles as star vehicles, which is a darn shame. And that's despite Martin's pursuit of better quality material early in his film career. From here on in, the films would just become less "demanding" and less memorable.
Paramount's special extras may be new but look more like recycled older material. Candy, Hughes and Martin appear only in an older press conference, footage from which is salted through some fairly shapeless featurettes: a Making-Of piece, one on the director, and a 'tribute' to John Candy. As most of what's said is generic praise, we don't learn much. John Candy and Steve Martin liven things up by trading jokes but Mr. Hughes deadpans his answers.
The transfer is acceptable in enhanced widescreen. Fans who have heard about hours of crazy outtake materials -- the actors had fun with many scenes, possibly accounting for dozens of continuity mismatches -- will be disappointed by the one deleted scene, which has been shown frequently in TV airings. Viewers accustomed to broadcast TV versions need to be forewarned that Planes, Trains and Automobiles is rated "R" and contains plenty of swearing.
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