PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (1987) *** 1/4
For Steve Martin, an ad executive who tries to get from New York home to Chicago for Thanksgiving, the Odyssey of his trip is bad enough without having to put up with the companionship of a slob, curtain-ring salesman John Candy. Candy is his "bete noire." For this critic too, Candy has been a "bete noire" in movie after movie. But a funny thing happened on the way to Chicago. As the odd couple approaches the Windy City, Candy ceases to be a "bete noire" both for Martin and for me.
John Candy isn't about to replace Laurence Olivier -- or even Oliver Hardy (few fat comics ever reach the top), but within his specialized persona he finally comes into his own in Planes, Trains And Automobiles.
Martin's troubles begin when he tries to catch, in the Manhattan jungle, a cab to the airport . They increase exponentially during the movie's one-and-a-half hours. Candy, in the next seat on the plane, attaches himself to Martin. When the plane cannot land at O'Hare and ends up in Wichita, willy-nilly the overage yuppie and the proletarian have to face together a picaresque series of detours through the Midwest. All involve misadventures, frustrations and delays, and most means of transportation, including a garish taxi, a missing rental car, and another one that catches fire. Martin cannot stand Candy, periodically abandons him, but fate throws them back together again as they share all imaginable catastrophes, from sleazy motel rooms to having their money stolen by burglars.
The basic comedy of the film is that of an odd couple having to face the many traumas of modern transportation gone haywire. Those ordeals are so true that the less you have travelled the more you will laugh. But chances are that if you 're a frequent traveller the movie's chain of horrors and frustrations will make you shiver rather than giggle. What writer-director Hughes depicts is firmly embedded in reality, with minimal exaggerations.
Hughes' view of a traveller's America is quite jaundiced. What he does with New York is nasty, with people like a lawyer who gives up his cab only after Martin has bid up to $75, or like a thoroughly bitchy stewardess. Mid-America fares poorly too as Hughes works into his scenario much physical ugliness of people and places.
Looking at it in this way, it doesn't really amount to comedy. But Hughes is a canny fellow who knows which tricks of the trade will work on mass audiences. His movies are what Sara Lee heat-and-serve croissants are to the real, pastry-shop product. Not the best but reliable. So the trick in this movie is to go beyond the ordinary and into the outlandish by adding to the travails of travel a mismatched duo. Otherwise, the incidents of this trek, when taken item by item, could be too depressingly familiar to induce any kind of mirth.
This particular notion (which is not like Neil Simon's The Odd Couple) is not new to the movies. Its twist is to chain together (literally or metaphorically) unlikely or antagonistic companions, who by journey's end, will be friends or lovers. Frank Capra did it in It Happened One Night. Alfred Hitchcock did this in The 39 Steps, with fugitive Robert Donat handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll. Stanley Kramer shackled Tony Curtis to Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones. Cop movies do it all the time these days, mostly with interracial partners.
I suspect that P,T & A works on the audience in different ways. For some early-laughing viewers, past a certain point, the accumulation of misfortunes may become mechanical. For others (including myself) it is precisely when the pile of troubles becomes monstrous that the movie becomes really funny, because it shifts from the realm of the almost real to that of the almost unreal simply through the sheer weight of incidents. This turning point is, for me, roughly when Martin, stranded on the tarmac of the St.Louis airport and unable to find his rented car, goes into the familiar Steve Martinish flailings and contortions. Until about that time, Martin has uncharacteristically been more of a straight man to Candy, more re-actor than actor, from the opening scene of the movie.
John Candy himself may seem to be pretty consistent with (though much better than) his previous parts, but there is in fact a major change. He has stopped clowning and artificially calling attention to himself. He is not a comic any more, he is the unredeemable slob. But his good nature and resilience slowly gain Martin's grudging sympathy, and perhaps the audience's. The film throws in some last-minute pathos --an old cinematic ploy that Hughes uses to pull the wool over the eyes of audiences willing to suspend logic in favor of a nice warm feeling. Does anyone really believe that The Slob That Came to Dinner will remain forever Martin's friend? But then this film is coming out during the holiday season, when we all pretend that this is a wonderful life.
Please Note: Do not leave your seat during the end credits. There's a clever post-scriptum right after them.
Written December 23 1987. Minimal revision April 5 1999.