Like any John Hughes film, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles includes a handful of life lessons: Neal Page (Steve Martin) learns that family is more important than success, and, sometimes, going with the flow like his counterpart Del Griffith (John Candy) brings more joy to life than running a perpetual race with a bunch of uptight suits trying to land the next big contract.
Characteristically, there are also elements of screwball zaniness that include unintentional homoerotic encounters between Candy and Martin that beg the question, “What exactly were the pillows?” Griffith’s obnoxious existence is a perfect clash with Page’s straight-laced, sterile universe, but the two are rarely hyperbolic. The late John Candy plays Griffith as a slob, but one who’s self-effacing and self-aware. Amidst his often gross behavior, there’s a genuinely kind man who wears his heart on his sleeve, which is why we feel for him when Page springs from bed shouting “That’s it!” before relinquishing a diatribe of personal attacks on Griffith’s character. Hughes does not write these characters as static cartoons; each has his glaring faults, but each also holds a pound of two of humanity, moments most exposed when they reminisce about times with their families. Each man is frustrated with his existence, and each deals with in a different manner, but the desire for both is to be reconnected with his loved ones. For Page, this is a matter of navigating ever-more-frustrating modes of transportation and back luck; for Griffith, it’s a quest for emotions lost to the past.
Each man’s trajectory towards something is more poignant than any conversation that could be launched in 2012 about how the depiction of the airlines in 1987 is not that different form the present day. The seats in coach are still tiny; the attendants are still moody; the passengers are still rather pushy. The one notable difference is that airlines still served meals in 1987. Today, a “heated, reheated, and heated again” lasagna that closer resembles residual rubber stuck to a 100-degree stretch of highway would cost the passenger ten dollars, whereas it would have been complimentary twenty five years ago … but I digress.
More poignantly, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is the antithesis of the class American road movie. Traditionally, mobility offers an escape from the normal, stagnant existence. However, in this film, mobility is the norm and being trapped in this movement is the stagnant existence. Page, who works in marketing, traveling to and from Chicago seems quotidian, something illustrated in the very first few moments of the film in which he tries to catch navigate his way from New York City to Chicago to get home in time for Thanksgiving dinner. His first obstacle is retrieving a cab on Park Avenue during rush hour. His prime nemesis – aside from the other three million people doing the same – is a young, shifty eyed Kevin Bacon who synchronously hurdles people, baggage and fire hydrants on his way to securing transport. Here, Hughes provides a comical lens on the ubiquitous competition in New York but also reminds us that mobility is not unique; rather, it is a necessary part of life. And, in a sense, if we’re all in motion, then there’s nowhere left to run when we need to get away. Instead, we seek home: the constant structure that provides us respite from our weary travels – something unseen in movies like Easy Rider, The Last Detail, or Five Easy Pieces.
For Del, a quick-talking salesman for American Light and Fixture – shower curtain division, mobility is an escape from home because “home” is a reminder of his deceased wife, and, in a sense, going home is an acknowledgement of her death, something that only emerges in the last ten minutes of the film. In one sense, this come off as a semi-inorganic play for emotion on the part of Hughes. However, there’s something more here. There’s a sense of lamentation for Griffith’s occupation – no matter how many friends or connections he’s made along the way. In a sense, his job kept him on the road for days, weeks, and months at a time. While in transit, he lost those moments with his wife, and when she was gone, he had nowhere else to go. The “home” he remembered was embodied in a person, not a building, but without that person, Griffith is without a compass, lost and perpetually in motion.
Admittedly, Griffith more traditionally fits the mold of a road-movie character in that he’s trying to escape. However, the reality is that he’s really looking for a place to be grounded, which is why he’s constantly looking for Page. Page represents a form of stability, someone with somewhere to go.
In the end, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles successfully blends organic screwball comedy and genuine heart, something that is often as hard to come by as stability.