Like 1987’s dystopian satire “Robocop,” John Hughes’ 1987 romp “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is a late, Reagan-era comedy about what happens when machines that were built to make society run smoother (especially for people with money) start breaking down. Not only do these inventions fail to inoculate the upper class from general disrepair, they propel them headfirst into scenarios left for the market to sort out.
After Neal Page (played by Steve Martin), a Manhattan advertising executive trying to make it home to Chicago for Thanksgiving, loses his cab to Del Griffith (John Candy), an everyman shower ring salesman, he’s forced into a dependency on the latter when almost every mode of transportation conceivable malfunctions and strands him way off route. Be it a plane landing in another state due to inclement weather, a train stopping in its tracks in the middle of nowhere, or a car exploding on a highway, Hughes conceives of enough near-fatal scenarios for a follow-up to Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe At Any Speed.”
Martin, usually playing a rubber-limbed goof put-upon by disasters of his own creation (i.e. “The Jerk”), here stiffens up and sharpens his energy into an insufferable force of condescension, getting him no further when he lets everyone in the world know exactly what he was told by AppleCare. Every attempt to pay his way out of interacting with the working class puts Neal further into a zone of discomfort his income bracket is meant to safeguard him from. Meanwhile, Candy, as a relentlessly hospitable Midwesterner, creates a routine out of accidental imposition. What could easily be a series of jokes about the inconvenience of his large frame is instead reconfigured to highlight Neal’s entitled sense of discomfort, as Del is very much at home in a world Neal does his best to avoid. Their dynamic suggests Laurel and Hardy if they went through a body-swap comedy.
Unlike the casual racism of Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles” or the blasé attitude towards sexual assault in both “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles,” “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” has aged surprisingly well, punching up more than it does down. Even the gay-panic humor of a scene where, having had to share a bed with each other, Neal realizes Del’s hand isn’t between “two pillows,” the joke is more on the masculine rituals required to distance homosocial bonding from any sexual comfort, with both of them reflexively grunting platitudes about sports afterward like, “uhh you see that Bears game last week? Hell of a game, hell of a game.”
One running theme is the distance between Madison Avenue and its customer base, for which Del’s door-to-door pluckiness creates a proto-“Scrooged” foil for Neal. When Neal asks why Del’s hell-on-wheels cabbie friend Doobie (Larry Hankin) takes the scenic route to a last-minute motel, Del answers that “he’s proud of his town, that’s a damn rare thing these days.” Hughes sort of has it both ways, populating every detour with cartoon characters one might have an understandable frustration with—and yet, to Hughes and Martin’s credit, each encounter only deepens our sympathy for anyone who has to deal with Neal, hopefully leaving the audience with a sense of mindfulness for the labor force working overtime to get anyone home for the holidays.
“Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” directed by John Hughes, screens at the Parkway with “Home For The Holidays,” directed by Jodie Foster (and shot in Baltimore, by the way), as part of a double feature on Nov. 20 and on its own on Nov. 19.