Planes, Trains and Automobiles isn’t just one of John Hughes’ funniest films, it’s one of his most complex.
*Minor Spoilers, but this movie is thirty-one years old so I feel silly writing that*
One of the strengths of the legendary John Hughes was his ability to speak to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. This was driven by a valid emotional core to his characters, regardless of the wacky situations they were found in. Plainly, audiences recognize and appreciate verity. It is how we can relate to characters with whom we have little in common with. The occasional holiday setting helps this as well, adding familiar environments and stakes to narrative. Hughes exploited this in a few notable films, but Planes, Trains and Automobiles utilizes this in a unique way.
When referring to Hughes’ holiday set films, the first two that spring to mind are Home Alone and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Though neither were directed by the writer, Hughes’ style and sensibilities are conveyed masterfully in both. Characters fumble through the fun and hope of Christmas, and ultimately find satisfying resolutions to their challenges. The Christmas season is simply a wonderful way to garner the attention of young and old, and was proven effective in both instances. It is tempting to draw comparisons between Planes Neal Page and Christmas Vacation‘s Clark Griswold, but I think there is a less obvious comparison that reveals much of the truth behind Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Home Alone is set in a PG world, where the violence is cartoon and the stakes are attuned to the fears of children. Kevin McCallister’s ultimate fear is that he’d have to take care of himself and his home without the experience necessary to do so. The Wet Bandits are an exaggeration of this threat, something that could rapidly deplete Kevin’s resources and leave him without the security he craves. Christmas is about hope for the future, and celebration of the present. Kevin’s family returning seals his security, and he’s able to move on to the future as if nothing has happened.
Trains, Planes and Automobiles is set in a more realistic (yes, that’s a bit of a stretch – but bear with me) world, and is firmly rated R. Neal Page (Steve Martin) is subjected to an adult nightmare. He is unable to return home, consistently finds his plans foiled by others and ends up paired with the grating personality of Del Griffith (John Candy). He finds himself in a constant cycle of resenting Griffith’s behavior, but acknowledging and appreciating his help. Unlike the young McCallister, Page isn’t afraid that he’ll never see his family again, but is pressured by the responsibilities of his holiday, Thanksgiving. This keeps both characters from veering into stereotypes, and is one of the strongest aspects of the film. They aren’t yet friends, but neither are completely unreasonable. Thanksgiving is coming, and it has to be dealt with.
It is this holiday that sets the film apart. Thanksgiving is a holiday driven by appreciation of the present and contemplation of the past. It also drives a bit of anxiety itself. Thanksgiving often carries the expectation of arduous travel, rife with complication. As families gather, they may discuss uncomfortable issues or standing disputes. While Christmas focuses on possibilities, Thanksgiving is about reflection. Page’s ultimate epiphany and acknowledgement of Griffith’s depressing situation (see, not all the spoilers) perfectly pairs with the holiday. Reflection on the past, and appreciation for what has occurred is something difficult for younger audiences. Hughes’ shows his mastery of film by acknowledging this and moving forward with the theme regardless. The film’s conclusion embraces this theme even further, but that almost goes without saying.
Beyond its pitch-perfect thematics, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is also an incredibly well performed and directed film. Hughes constantly utilizes the film’s soundtrack and effects to build anxiety, especially in the opening where after a blast of sound, there is near silence. The film is a rare, genuinely adult comedy that deserves the reverence it maintains.
If you’ve yet to see Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I couldn’t recommend it more.