Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

planes trains and automobiles


The Scoop: 1987 R, directed by John Hughes and starring Steven Martin, John Candy and (why not) Kevin Bacon

Tagline: What he really wanted was to spend Thanksgiving with his family. What he got was three days with the turkey.

Summary Capsule: Two men. A zillion modes of transportation. No hope in hell.

Justin’s rating: Back in time.  Surrounded by the Breakfast Club.  Low on gas.

Justin’s review: I think we all have stories about travels from hell (departing from Gate 9A), whether they be road trips gone awry, plane rides that granted you a crippling case of claustrophobia, or bus rides where recently released convicts fell asleep on your shoulder while you were trying to make it home on a 32-hour Greyhound sojurn.  What, the convict thing only happened to me?  Pfft.

So when John Hughes took on the tale of a couple of guys who can’t, for the life of them, get back home to Chicago for Thanksgiving, connection and rapport is struck with almost everyone watching.  Sure, we may not have suffered the exact string of crippling disasters that odd couple Neil (Steve Martin) and Del (John Candy) do, but there’s enough elements of truth to slap this movie on the back and go, “Hoo boy, I’ve been *there*!”

All uptight, cranky Neil wants is to get home from NYC to Chicago to see his family, but he can’t seem to catch a break: taxis are stolen from under his nose by Kevin Bacon (who was filmed doing so not as a cameo, but because that’s what he does when he doesn’t make movies), his plane overshoots Chicago by a magnitude of a few states, and every form of transportation he hops on doesn’t get him very far.  To make matters worse, it appears that his fate is intertwined with a morbidly obese chatterbox named Del, who has a sunnier disposition but is also pungently aromatic.

Yup, it’s the movie that Tommy Boy lifted whole sections of the plot from, including the obnoxious fattie, the wound-up freak, cars being destroyed, and male bonding happening amid hotel rooms in back country America.

Some have said that PTA (pita?) was Hughes’ greatest accomplishment in the ’80s, his breakout adult (not Adult) movie that became a genuine smash hit.  I wasn’t really aware of this when I was younger, but looking back, I’m a little hesitant to elevate it anywhere near the status of Ferris Bueller, Breakfast Club or even Uncle Buck — nevermind above them.

For one thing, while PTA is quite often amusing and occasionally hilarious, it suffers from a severe case of nostalgia giggles, where people think it’s a lot funnier than it is simply because they thought it was so back in the day.  Looking at it somewhat more objectively, the humor comes and goes fairly casually, and the lines aren’t anywhere near Hughes’ most notable and quotable.  Many of the situations are played for laughs just by going out on the stage and saying, in effect, “Wow!  How horrible would this be!” but really doing nothing with the situation itself.

I also found both the characters of Neil and Del to be forced, in a fashion.  Neil flipflops frequently between being overly mean and a nice enough guy; Del is too obtuse to be real, and doesn’t score enough sympathy points for Hughes to try to use him for the emotional impact when the script calls for it.  They’re interesting characters, but they’re ultimately caricatures – a little too flimsy and awkward to be believable.

Don’t get me wrong – PTA isn’t a terrible flick; in fact, I really did enjoy seeing it for the first time all the way through in the grand ol’ year of 2010, which says something for the staying power of Hughes’ tales.  And speaking of the recently deceased, just soaking in one of his movies where his trademarks kept popping up – odd beyond belief characters, hip soundtracks, Ben Stein – was like taking a long-overdue trip back home to the ’80s.  Just don’t expect too much of a classic from what is more of a solid road trip flick, and you’ll be fine.

PoolMan’s rating: A round trip ticket in coach… it’ll get you there, but you know somewhere else, they’re drinking champagne in bigger seats.

PoolMan’s review: First things first. This is my second stab at writing this review. (Clare apparently does a minimum of 18 drafts of any given review, and I was starting to feel left out) I wrote an entirely different one, which followed the theme “Why ’80s Movies Should Only Be Viewed By Justin” and complained about how formulaic this flick was before it even occurred to me that the review itself was as formulaic as any I’d ever done before. D’oh. Me Sean. Me hypocrite. So I decided to scrap it and try again, this time from a different point of view.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is (in my own mind) one of those movies that fell right into line with the phenonmenon I had with So I Married An Axe Murderer (a condition now known to me as Axemurderitis): the lines have been repeated ad nauseum, the best parts have been retold, everyone knows the line about “two pillows”, and yet, when you finally sit down and see it, it’s just not as funny or entertaining as you’d hoped. It’s not bad, it just didn’t live up to the hype.

The feeling I got through the whole of PT&A was that it was a two-man play. A rather large, elaborately set play, mind you, but a play nonetheless. You have your two stock characters, grouchy, bitter, Neal (rendered by the god of annoyed characters, Steve Martin), and chubby, slow-witted Del (played by Canadian comedy god John Candy) basically supporting the entire film with ongoing banter and shenanigans that I can’t describe any other way except that they seemed intended for theater, not film. Take out the extra characters, change the locales a bit, and this would make an excellent little stage production.

Not that that’s a bad thing. Oh contraire, mon ami, it was refreshing. I especially liked the scenes where Del and Neal seem to have finally made up and get drunk together in the motel. How many of us haven’t honestly behaved just like that before… right down to the giggles?

There were moments that had me gasping, they were so funny. There were points where I didn’t even really get what the joke was. And for whatever reason, the producers throw in a super-depressing ending, only to scoop it at the last second with a paltry homecoming scene to lighten the mood. But across the board, Planes, Trains, Automobiles, Submarines, Space Shuttles, and Pogo Sticks was pretty fun. All aboooooooard!

Canuck Alert! John Candy, RIP, one of the best we ever had in the Great White North.

“So… 25 more minutes left in this movie? Want to yell at each other some more?”


  • Cameos, cameos, cameos! If you’re not cheering by the time you see Kevin Bacon as Mean Guy Across The Street, you’ll still have to notice when Mike McKean, Edie McClurg, and Ben Stein all pop up for a few seconds and then go home.
  • A roadside sign reads, “Chicago 106 miles,” a reference to The Blues Brothers.
  • At the beginning of the movie, Neal Page races a character played by Kevin Bacon for a taxi. Later, Neal phones his wife to tell her that he has been delayed (again), in the background, you can here the fight from She’s Having a Baby (also directed by John Hughes) between Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern, when she screams that she doesn’t like his friend’s girlfriend.
  • During the credits: advertising exec William Windom examining a bunch of pictures.
  • Hey, it’s Ferris Bueller’s dad!
  • Ben Stein, I didn’t know you worked the airlines in the 80’s

Groovy Quotes

Del: You play with your balls a lot.
Neal: Oh really?
Del: Yeah, you do more ballhandling in one minute than Larry Bird does in an hour.
Neal: You know what I’d really like?
Del: A couple of more hands and an extra set of balls?

Del: We’d have more luck playing pick-up sticks with our buttcheeks than we will getting a flight out of here before daybreak.

[Waking up after sharing the same bed in a motel]
Neal: Del… Why did you kiss my ear?
Del: Why are you holding my hand?
Neal: Where’s your other hand?
Del: Between two pillows…
Neal: Those AREN’T PILLOWS!!!

Cop: What the hell are you driving here?
Del: We had a small fire last night, but we caught it in the nick of time.
Cop: Do you have any idea how fast you were going?
Del: Funny enough, I was just talking to my friend about that. Our speedometer has melted and as a result it’s very hard to see with any degree of accuracy exactly how fast we were going.

Neal: You know… you know when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea: have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Tommy Boy
  • Uncle Buck
  • The Jerk


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