The fact that John Hughes 1987 film Planes, Trains and Automobiles is nearly thirty years old is a little strange to me. Hughes’ first successful foray into non-teen pictures was a staple of my childhood. A lot of movies featuring either John Candy or Steve Martin were. By the age of five, around the point in which I saw the movie for the first time, both actors were extremely familiar to me. Having both of them team up for a movie that featured testicles being grabbed, cars being set on fire, and dealings with the nefarious, unfathomably smug Kevin Bacon was gold from the beginning.
I’ve watched the movie at least once or twice a year, since seeing it for the first time around twenty-five years ago. It remains a comfort movie that never fails to get laughs from its most famous scenes. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the wonderful chemistry between Martin and Candy. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is also one of the go-to movies for any time in which I want to miss John Candy as an actor. He could work with virtually anyone. He was also considerably more talented as a comedian than simply existing as a fat guy who could make funny faces. He could generate sympathy in scenes that would have completely lacked that quality otherwise.
Really, the only thing that ever slows down the brilliant comedic momentum of the film are the scenes in which the movie tries to generate sentimentality. The movie is one of the few to qualify as a Thanksgiving title, although I didn’t really start seeing it as one until I moved to the States. When Martin’s uptight businessman isn’t providing Candy’s hapless traveling salesman (but those shower curtain rings are pretty nifty) with flawless comic foil, the movie tries for holiday gushiness. The only reason why it works at all is because of Candy and Martin. John Candy could sell you on almost anything. Steve Martin was just starting to make it clear that he was far more diverse than he sometimes got credit for. When Hughes script is at its best, they’re amazing. When it falters, they keep things going at an excellent clip. Despite being nearly thirty years old, Planes, Trains and Automobiles remains incredibly fresh, phenomenal in its humor and timing, and a memorable showcase for two legends.
Candy would be dead in about six years, while Steve Martin’s work became increasingly hit or miss over the course of the 90s and beyond. Here, both actors contribute singular talents that make for one of the greatest comedy team-ups ever. I am never impatient while watching this movie. I’m ready for Martin’s meltdown at the car rental place. I’m definitely ready for Michael McKean’s pitch-perfect reading of “What the hell are you driving here?” The list of absolutely flawless scenes is very nearly the entire film from start to finish.
Great Thanksgiving films are few and far between. Thankfully, since this movie will never go out of style, that’s not the worst thing in the world.
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