Christmas movies abound, but only a handful of films celebrate Thanksgiving. Among them is the delightful Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which should be required viewing for anyone naive enough not to realize what they should feel thankful for.
The movie was probably a peak for its collaborators. Writer-director John Hughes was still riding a wave of success from his teen-angst comedies such as Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. John Candy was a golden boy from his work on “Second City TV” and his likable schlub in Stripes and Splash. And Steve Martin was just then refining his wild-and-crazy-guy persona into a more believable, uptight but well-meaning adult. All three still had hits after this one, but few of them linger in the memory as well.
If you’ve seen The Odd Couple or any number of road movies featuring an incongruous duo thrown together, the movie’s scenario will be no big surprise. Martin plays Neal Page, a snotty advertising exec who knocks himself out trying to make it home from New York to have Thanksgiving dinner with his family. He’s foiled at every turn by Del Griffin (Candy), a glad-handing shower-ring salesman who keeps worming his way into Page’s path.
As Stan Laurel once said about his comedies, the surprises are often not in the destination but how one arrives there. And Martin and Candy evoke nothing so much as a latter-day Laurel & Hardy, as their simple goal of reaching Chicago in 48 hours evolves into a splendid farce of misplaced wallets, ever-worsening modes of transportation, and one of the funniest car wrecks ever conceived for the movies.
This might have turned into a frantic cartoon, as Hughes’ more labored movies often did. But it’s grounded in a couple of solid characterizations. Candy has a couple of maudlin speeches about what a humble guy he is, but mostly he conveys his character through some humbled glances when he realizes he’s gone too far. And Martin’s body language, from devilish stares to dancing fits of frustration, speaks volumes.
There are numerous moments here that belong in the annals of great film comedy: The aforementioned car wreck. The scene where Martin vents his frustration by counting the ways in which Candy annoys him. The scene where Martin and Candy mistakenly wake up in each other’s arms, and try to shake it off by talking about the latest Bears game. And the scene where Martin repeatedly, lovingly spits out the F-word to an oblivious rental clerk.
If holiday annoyances are wearing you down, rent Planes, Trains and Automobiles to remind you how comparatively easy you have it. (If you still think you have it bad, do a double feature and rent David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross to get a glimpse of the worst job you could possibly have. But that’s another review.)