Written and directed by the late John Hughes in 1987 after he himself got involved with a fairly horrible commute, Planes, Trains & Automobiles is, on the surface at least, a pretty simple movie. When it begins, a marketing executive named Neal Page (Steve Martin) is trying to hail a cab on a busy Manhattan street. As he's negotiating with a lawyer who wants to 'sell him' the cab he called over first, a chunky guy with a moustache loads his trunk into the back and heads to the airport. Neal eventually makes it there too, just in time for his flight back to his Chicago home for Thanksgiving to be delayed. As he sits and waits, he notices that the man sitting across from him looks familiar. It turns out that it's the guy who stole his cab, Del Griffith (John Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman who seems to be unaware that he'd done anything wrong. He tries to make it up to Neal, but he'll have none of it.
From here, through a series of missteps and blunders, they wind up travelling together. Neal's first class seat is bumped and he winds up in coach sitting right beside Del, who talks his ear off for the entire flight. When the plane is redirected to Wichita due to snow in Chicago, they wind up in a fleabag motel (where they're both robbed) together with hopes of taking the train home the next day. Of course, that train runs into trouble, but Del's able to rent a car even if Neal isn't. Though Del quickly gets on Neal's nerves, the fact that he obviously has a big heart and the best of intentions starts to chip away at his selfish exterior and as they continue their trek to get back to Chicago in time, they develop an odd friendship.
Yes, like a lot of comedies, Planes, Trains And Automobiles throws realism out the window - the type of situations we see happen in the movie probably wouldn't ever happen the way that they do here and some of the circumstances that arise in the movie are a little too conveniently nutty to really seem like real life. That's not really the point though, going for real life - this is a movie more about character and friendship than it is about the toils and tribulations of long distance travel.
Because opposites attract, right? Neal just wants to get home to his wife (Laila Robbins) after a stint in New York. He's not a bad guy, he's just wealthy enough that he seems to have become accustomed to getting what he wants when he wants it. As such, he comes across as a snob. On the flip side, Del's motto is to just go with the flow, nothing seems to really rattle him much, he's content to take whatever life hands him and finds solace in the simple things like beer, smokes and greasy food. He talks too much, a character flaw he states he's aware of, but as he says 'I like me, and my wife likes me' so why should he change to fit Neal's view of who he should be?
As upper class Neal has to adjust his lifestyle to obnoxious Del, it's a lot of fun to watch two talented comedic actors have at it. Martin is restrained here compared to some of his more over the top performances but he still gets some great opportunities to show off his knack for physical comedy, be it awkwardly shaking his fist as the cab as it takes off in Manhattan or ranting and raging his way through a massive rental car lot to spew a string of expletives (eighteen F-bombs in one minute flat!) and an irritating rental car agent (a memorable bit part played by Edie McClurg). Candy's more laid back here than Martin, but that's in keeping with his character. Again, he just goes with the flow, only really getting hurt, rather than angry, when Neal loses it on him throughout the movie. He admits to himself that he enjoys Neal's company and really wants nothing more than a friend, a travelling companion. He's sad, really, and Candy plays the role perfectly, a likeable slob who just wants everyone to be happy.
In short, despite some logic gaps and some spots where the film definitely asks us to stretch reality a little bit, the movie just works. It's well written, it features some well thought out and interesting characters and it is never short on laughs. The fact that it manages to be as touching and, dare we say it, cute as it is without going for overly saccharine is a testament to its success. Little character quirks and details give it some solid replay value and the end result is a truly enjoyable comedy which has aged incredibly well.
Planes, Trains And Automobiles arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1.78.1 widescreen transfer in 1080p high definition. While colors fare really nicely here and there is some fine detail present throughout, someone went a little overboard in the noise reduction department giving most of the human elements in the movie some dastardly looking waxy skin tones. Texture on clothing and other items in the movie doesn't suffer too much for this but those susceptible to the dreaded DNR will no doubt take issue with Paramount's work here. On the plus side, again, colors look great and black levels are pretty strong. There aren't any issues with compression artifacts and things do definitely look better here than they have on past DVD releases of the movie even if some crush is obvious here and there. This could have been worse, but it also could and should have been a lot better...
The main audio option on the disc is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track with alternate Dolby Digital Mono mixes available in Spanish and Portuguese and removable subtitles offered up in English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese. While Paramount may have dropped the ball in the video department, the audio on this releases turns out to be pretty impressive. There aren't a ton of sound effects used in the movie, it's fairly heavy on dialogue, but you'll notice the improvement that the lossless audio offers over DVD releases throughout the movie. The score sounds a bit stronger, a bit more defined and clear while the dialogue sounds a bit more natural, thicker even. Levels are well balanced and surround activity does rear up from the back channels a few times like in the opening scene that takes place in Manhattan.
There are a few extras worth checking out on this disc, starting with the seventeen minute SD featurette Getting There is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains and Automobiles which mixes up footage of Hughes, Martin and Candy doing a press junket with more traditional talking head cast and crew interviews covering the directing process, the script, the casting and the performances. Presented in HD, the two part John Hughes: Life Moves Pretty Fast runs almost an hour and includes loads or archival interviews with Hughes as well as input from many of his contributors who discuss what it was like working with the director on various projects. There's a lot of emphasis here on how Hughes approached character development in this films and some pertinent clips are used throughout to help accentuate this. The documentary also covers his life and times within the film industry and his tragic death. It's quite comprehensive and interesting, well worth a watch regardless of how you feel about his work.
Aside from that, we get a four minute short bit in SD called John Hughes for Adults that discusses his decision to work in a more adult oriented field of comedy than he was typically known for, a three minute SD featurette entitled A Tribute to John Candy which is exactly what it sounds like, and a single deleted scene in HD entitled Airplane Food. Menus and chapter stops are included, the trailer for the film is not included here, unfortunately.
Planes, Trains And Automobiles is a rare comedy that actually manages to be as funny as it is warm and touching without resorting to tugging needlessly at your heart strings. Candy and Martin are excellent in their respective roles and really do a great job of fleshing out their respective characters. Paramount's Blu-ray does offer an upgrade in video quality over the DVD but that comes with the caveat that the disc has some DNR issues that are pretty hard not to notice. The audio is solid and the extras are decent, however - so with that in mind, the release as a whole comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.