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Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

A fast paced and frequently hilarious road comedy, Planes, Trains & Automobiles two-man show succeeds through inspired casting. Opening in New York City, ad-man Neal Page (Steve Martin) is desperate to escape from a tedious campaign meeting. He's booked a first-class seat on the 6pm flight to Chicago, planning to spend Thanksgiving with his family, and the clock is ticking. When Neal finally emerges onto the city streets he finds them more frenzied than ever, full of equally stressed commuters similarly eager to grab a cab.

When he finally sights one, in the middle of traffic, a young, hot-shot yuppie takes up the challenge and narrowly beats him to the door (when Neal goes sprawling over somebody's left luggage). His next attempt proves just as fruitless, with some fat guy nabbing the taxi from under him. This is not a good start. At the airport chaos reigns, a huge mass of bodies churning together. Neal almost has a coronary fighting his way to the check-in desk only to hear the delayed announcement. Then, to cap everything, he spies the cab-thief waiting for the same flight!

It turns out that Del Griffith (John Candy) is mortified at his faux-pas, genuinely sorry and happy to mollify Neal with a hot-dog. Refusing his offer coldly, little does Neal realise that Del is both his personal nemesis and guardian angel, all wrapped up into one giant, overbearing package. Through the vagaries of the weather, Neal and Del are destined to spend the next 48 hours in close proximity. Enduring all conceivable methods of motorised travel, their trip represents more than just the physical journey from Wichita to Chicago.

Using one of the simplest story formats Planes, Trains & Automobiles takes two incompatible characters and sticks them together so firmly that neither can wriggle free. The beautiful aspect is just how different Neal and Del are; Neal is intolerant, fastidious and uptight while Del is loud, obnoxious and hygienically-challenged. Both have their good points of course, but when you're unwillingly trapped with a stranger for hours on end these facets go unnoticed. Thus their quirks just wind each other up until breaking point is reached, when Neal explodes in a shower of frustration and abuse. Del absorbs all of this without comment then points out Neal's faults. Such catharsis is just what's needed to uncover their underlying humanity.

The choice of Steve Martin and John Candy makes Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Without effort they project the essence of their roles -- Candy is a natural slob while Martin is retentive enough to disappear entirely. When they concentrate and work as a team the results are often painfully hilarious, a wonderful mixture of physical and verbal humour. The script which links the various travel-disaster tales together is equally excellent, placing the duo in a variety of uncomfortable positions and letting them squirm. Such jokes are generally simple and well-used but this isn't a problem; Planes, Trains & Automobiles works and that's all that matters. On the negative side, John Hughes does slap on the sentimentality pretty thickly and finishes up in a far too sweet and tidy fashion. Mercifully such moments are brief though, hardly breaking up the out-loud laughter. Basically, Planes, Trains & Automobiles plays on our fears and experiences with skill and laughter.


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