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It's easy to forget now what a phenomenon Steve Martin was in the seventies with his HBO Special and his Saturday Night Live appearances.  His stand-up act, with its mix of absurdist philosophy and physical antics, was remarkable.  But this mix has only intermittently worked in his film career, where he seems to think that he should eschew his genuine physical gift in favor of faux profound statements.  It's perhaps no surprise then that he's only got a very few great performances and/or great movies to his credit : All of Me (1984),  Roxanne (1987), and Bowfinger (1999).

John Candy on the other hand never made much pretense about what he was, which was a guy we're supposed to laugh at just because of how he looks.  That's not to say he had no talent, but a healthy portion of his act was based on just the fact that he was a fat schlub.  So it's no surprise that he made practically no good movies.

Now, take the uneven Mr. Martin and the unpromising Mr. Candy and put them in a film directed by the only rarely funny John Hughes and it would seem you'd have a recipe for disaster.  Unless you were an acne riddled geek in the '80s, pretty much the only even mildly worthwhile film Mr. Hughes had ever made was Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986).  So it had always seemed like a safe bet to assume that Planes, Trains, and Automobiles would be unwatchable.  But then, to my utter mystification, people kept recommending it as a quality conservative film.  How could this be?

Well, upon viewing, what we find is an always amusing, at times genuinely hilarious, and ultimately affecting movie that manages to overcome a serious structural flaw in its second act.  Steve Martin plays Neal Page, an insufferably pretentious and snobbish executive who has promised his ice princess of a wife that he'll make it home to Chicago from a presentation in New York City in time for Thanksgiving.  As the title suggests, innumerable foul-ups impede his progress, many of them caused by John Candy's Del Griffith, an overly friendly shower ring salesman.  As Neal gets more and more frustrated he takes it out on a stewardess, when he's bumped from first class, on a rental car clerk, and even on Del, who he nearly reduces to tears.

It's pretty obvious where the buddy flick formula is headed though--Del will humanize Neal--and it ends up working out quite nicely.  But in the middle section of the movie, Del's character acts so much against type in several scenes, perhaps in an effort to make Steve Martin less of a bad guy, that it's rather jarring.  At one point, when they're out of money, he sells his curtain rings as rare earrings in a bus stop--a scam that is simply too dishonest for the viewer to accept from him.  Oddly enough the very funniest bit in the movie occurs during this section, when Del is driving and first gets himself accidentally restrained by his own jacket and then gets back on the highway headed in the wrong direction.  That you're laughing too hard to breathe makes it easier to deal with the inconsistencies.

In the end there are sufficient belly laughs and Steve Martin's character has learned enough, about himself and about the pain beneath Del's jovial facade, that the movie is well worthwhile.  It's not as good as it should have been, but it's better than the names on the marquee would lead us to expect.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

    -INFO : Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) (
    -FILMOGRAPHY : John Hughes (
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Steve Martin (
    -FILMOGRAPHY : John Candy (
    -PODCAST: ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ With Bill Simmons and Van Lathan: Bill Simmons and Van Lathan try to make it home before Thanksgiving so they can rewatch John Hughes’s ‘Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,’ starring Steve Martin and John Candy (Bill Simmons and Van Lathan Nov 29, 2022, The Rewatchables)
-REVIEW: of {PLanes, Trains (Stephen M. Klugewicz, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Thirty-five years of crying to Planes, Trains and Automobiles: I like to spend every Thanksgiving with John Candy (Art Tavana, November 23, 2022, Spectator)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Planes, Trains, and Thanksgiving (TITUS TECHERA, NOVEMBER 23, 2021, Acton)
    -REVIEW : of Planes, Trains & Automobiles (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Planes, Trains & Automobiles (James Berardinelli)
    -REVIEW : of Planes, Trains & Automobiles (Hal Hinson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Planes, Trains & Automobiles (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Planes, Trains & Automobiles (Flick Philosopher)
    -REVIEW : of Planes, Trains & Automobiles (Nate Anderson, Movie Vault)
    -REVIEW : of Planes, Trains & Automobiles (Stephen M. Klugewicz, Imaginative Conservative)