Growing up, my two favorite comedians were Steve Martin and John Candy. My favorite filmmaker was John Hughes. And yet I was never allowed to see the collaboration of my three heroes -- Planes, Trains and Automobiles, because it was Rated "R" and my parents are mean. When I finally broke my father down and was permitted to watch it, I treasured every moment. And I still do. Maybe it's the years of anticipation that made the film so special to me, but it easily ranks among my very favorite comedies of all time.
John Hughes was in the midst of an amazing hot streak in 1987. He had written the screenplays for hits like Mr. Mom, National Lampoon's Vacation, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful. His first four films as a writer/director had been Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, four of the most important films of my youth (and a lot of peoples' youths). Planes, Trains and Automobiles was a bit of a departure for Hughes -- an "adult" comedy, with nary a teenager in sight. Thankfully, Hughes knew the complicated world of adult relationships and feelings just as well as he did that of teens.
Martin plays Neal Page, an uptight advertising man who is trying to get from New York to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. John Candy plays Del Griffith, a slobby shower curtain ring salesman who is headed the same direction as Neal. For better or worse, they wind up taking the trip together. Tale as old as time. But beautiful writing, pitch-perfect performances, and a surprisingly powerful undercurrent of emotion make Planes, Trains and Automobiles the buddy comedy by which all others must be judged.
The film has too many big laughs to recap, so I'll just give a string of my favorite lines, and hope they stir up some memories. "We'd have better luck playing pick-up sticks with our butt cheeks..." "People train runs out of Stubville." "Her first baby come out sideways. She didn't scream or nothing." "Those aren't pillows!" "You're going the wrong way! You're going to kill somebody!" "Oh, he's drunk. How would he know where we're going?" "Another couple of balls and an extra set of fingers?" "Wilma!" "The radio still works! And it's clear as a bell!" "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." "I have two dollars...and a...Casio!" And of course, who could forget the classic airport "F-Word" sequence, which gave PTA the rating that kept this brokenhearted child from the film for far too long.
There are so many funny moments you could be fooled into thinking PTA is just another laugh fest, until a frankly amazing hotel room confrontation between Martin and Candy. Martin is fed up with Candy and unleashes a killer monologue (I used to audition for plays with it) about just how annoying he is. "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 aren't even amusing accidentally!" It's a really relatable and funny speech, but Hughes doesn't give you the option of sitting back and laughing. Instead, he repeatedly cuts to the genuinely hurt face of Candy throughout, forcing you to see how much Martin's words sting. The laughs are there, but boy do they stick in your throat. And when Candy shoots back with a monologue of his own -- it forces the viewer into remorse not just for laughing along with Martin's cruelty, but for the times he or she poked fun of someone. It's painful, it's brutal, it's true. Contrast that scene with a film that PTA clearly inspired -- Tommy Boy. I think Tommy Boy is hilarious, but the audience is invited to laugh right along with David Spade as he rips into Chris Farley. The difference is what makes Tommy Boy a great comedy and PTA a great film.
And that's not the only moment of high emotion. PTA has a lot to say about understanding your fellow man, about not judging a book by its cover, and about the complicated world of male friendships. It's got a lot more to say on that last subject than a movie like this year's Superbad, where the underdeveloped and overpraised "heart" felt shoehorned in, and not a natural outgrowth of the characters. And PTA gets at that genuine human emotion with even funnier jokes about testicles and homosexual panic.
Perhaps Martin and certainly Candy were never better than here, and Candy unfortunately was never given the opportunity to be. He is so moving, so lovable, so hilarious in this film, and the movie's ultimate revelation about Del Griffith is made twice as sad and touching in light of Candy's tragic death. The final freeze frame on Candy's angelic face (also the ending of another great Hughes/Candy collaboration -- Uncle Buck), marks a powerful closing point for a classic character comedy, a classic comedy character, and for Candy himself.
Throughout high school, I held yearly Thanksgiving "PTA meetings" -- gatherings of friends to watch the film. In college, I formed a band and called it The PTA, in honor of the movie. It's been an important part of my holiday season and an important inspiration to me as a writer for years. You'd be hard pressed to find a sweeter, funnier comedy. Planes, Trains and Automobiles was released almost exactly twenty years ago, and (aside from the very eighties musical score) it feels like it could have hit theaters yesterday. Kids, if you're under seventeen and your folks won't let you watch "R" - rated movies, sneak this one. If you get caught, have your parents call me personally. No one should have to wait to see Planes, Trains and Automobiles.