In the 35 years since John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” was released to critical and popular acclaim on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1987, Hughes’ most accomplished film has only grown in reputation, and deservedly so.
It’s a great road trip movie. A classic buddy film. A terrific slapstick comedy. A heartwarming drama.
And one of the best Thanksgiving movies of all time.
At its heart, “PTA” is all about a regular everyman named Neal Page (played by Steve Martin) who has a demanding job, a loving wife and three adoring kids — and just wants to make it home for the holiday. The elements and bureaucratic indifference and bad luck and petty crime and a big giant guy named Del Griffith (the late and greatly missed John Candy) and the gods of fate seem to be standing in his way, but, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Neal Page needs to get home, needs to make things right with his family.
If you haven’t seen “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” you might want to pause your reading for 92 minutes of pure movie heaven and then come back because we are going on a deep dive that will include all the spoilers to be spoiled. Here we go … Taxi!
Just as Hughes’ “She’s Having a Baby” was loosely based on his time as a young husband whose wife was expecting a child, “PTA” was inspired by Hughes’ experience when he was working as an advertising copywriter for Leo Burnett in Chicago. After making a presentation in New York City on a Wednesday morning, Hughes hoped to make it back to Chicago on a 5 p.m. flight, but winter weather here led to a series of cancellations and diversions that took Hughes from New York to Iowa to Denver to Des Moines to Phoenix before he finally made it home several days later.
Enter Chicago marketing man Neal Page, desperate to catch that 6 p.m. flight from New York City to Chicago. “I’ll see you in Chicago, John,” Neal says to his co-worker, who tauntingly replies, “You’ll never make the 6 …”
That co-worker is played by Lyman Ward, who was Ferris’ father in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” A number of other Hughes regulars appear in “PTA,” including the great Edie McClurg, who was Ed Rooney’s receptionist in “Ferris” and appears here as the rental car agent who endures Neal’s f-bomb rant, learns he has thrown away his rental agreement and deadpans, “Oh, boy. ... You’re f---ed.”
Long before that misadventure, when Neal is trying to find a cab in Manhattan during rush hour, he gets in a race with young hotshot played by Kevin Bacon, who is dressed exactly like his character of advertising copywriter Jake Briggs in “She’s Having a Baby,” complete with “popped collar.” Some have theorized that IS Jake Briggs, though it would have to be in some kind of Hughes multiverse, seeing as how Neal’s wife Susan (the sublime Laila Robins) is watching a scene from “She’s Having a Baby” on TV back home in suburban Chicago as she awaits her husband’s return.
Del’s reading material
When Neal spots Del in the airport in New York, Del is reading what appears to be a salacious paperback, titled “The Canadian Mounted.” In “Deadpool 2,” the title character, played by Candy’s fellow Canadian Ryan Reynolds (who is working on a documentary about Candy), is seen reading the same paperback in the same, apparently near-sighted manner.
Trouble at home?
In the original script for “PTA,” it was made more evident that Susan suspected Neal might be having an affair, what with him being on the road so often and seemingly a bit distant, geographically and emotionally. It’s still implied in the final cut; at one point when Neal calls, Susan says, “What’s going on, Neal?” and there’s another scene in which Neal picks up the phone to call home and then decides against it. (Del also picks up on it, asking Neal at one point: “Little trouble on the home front?”) This would also explain the look of utter relief on Susan’s face when she hears Neal introducing Del to his family before she even sees them and the great emotion she displays when welcoming Del and hugging Neal.
Real heart and drama
“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” becomes something more than a great but light comedy in the scene where Neal unloads on Del, ranting: “Didn’t you notice on the plane, when you started talking, eventually I started reading the vomit bag? Didn’t that give you some sort of clue, like maybe this guy’s not enjoying it? You know, everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate! You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle. Your stories have none of that! They’re not even amusing accidentally …”
The look of hurt on Del’s face is just killer — as is the expression on Neal’s face when he realizes how deep his words have cut.
And then Del stands up for himself, in a rare moment of quiet introspection: “I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. Cuz I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.”
Great work by both actors.
Because “PTA” wasn’t exactly friendly to the transportation industry, the filmmakers had to use fictional company names. For instance, the railroad is called “Contrack,” a combination of “Conrail” and “Amtrak.”
That’s a lot of cash, Neal
Before Neal and Del are robbed in the middle of the night, Neal had more than $700 in his wallet. Why so much cash, Neal? No wonder Susan was suspicious about your activities!
They’re the modern stone-age family
On the bus, Del leads a singalong to the theme from “The Flintstones.” In the “Beach Games” episode of “The Office” 20 years later, the Dunder-Mifflin gang sings the “Flintstones” theme on a bus. A tribute? We’d like to think so.
Reaching out to a friend
On a number of occasions during their misadventures, Neal shakes his head, sighs — and rushes over to help Del with that ridiculous and utterly unnecessary trunk. This is foreshadowing of that iconic moment after Del tells Neal, “I don’t have a home. Marie’s been dead for eight years,” and Neal helps Del carry that case right down the middle of the street as they head to Neal’s home together.
And if that shot of the two of them doesn’t bring a glisten to your eye, I don’t know if we can be friends this Thanksgiving.
“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” will return to theaters for 35th anniversary screenings Nov. 6 and 7. For details, go to www.fathomevents.com.