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On Nov. 25, 1987, John Hughes unveiled the R-rated Planes, Trains & Automobiles in theaters. The comedy, starring Steve Martin and John Candy, has become a holiday travelers’ staple. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
There are only two certainties about the holiday season: Each year it comes earlier, and each year we arrive later. If there are any carefree souls out there who don’t yet have the heebie-jeebies about holiday air travel, Planes, Trains & Automobiles should put them in the same high state of hysteria the rest of us are in.
Starring Steve Martin as a typical Thanksgiving air traveler and John Candy as every flyer’s worst nightmare of who the guy in the next seat will be, PT&A should book many healthy return trips to the bank for Paramount. The studio’s savvy marketing department should have a field day with the current backlash against air travel.
Although producer John Hughes seems to have put the brakes on writer/director John Hughes’ usual full-speed ahead, slapstick-propelled style in this odd couple/on-the-road comedy, Planes, Trains & Automobiles is, no disparagement intended, an “audience picture.”
Mainstream audiences should readily identify with the series of tribulations and woes that befall the Everyman Martin in this good-natured, albeit predictable comedy.
Martin’s goal is modest, to make it home to Chicago from a N.Y. marketing meeting to spend Thanksgiving with his family. He even has a confirmed first-class ticket. A patient and efficient guy, Martin’s a first-class traveler in every respect. He’s even prepared for stacking, bumping, circling, delaying and even re-routing, but he’s not prepared for the bubbling and bulging blabbermouth (Candy) in the next seat.
They couldn’t be more mismatched. Martin’s an urbane and aloof executive, while Candy’s an unsophisticated and effusive traveling salesman. They’ve nothing in common, except that they’ve now been rerouted to Wichita.
Essentially, Hughes has booked Martin and Candy on a worst-case Trip Tick, and their frantic foray across mid-America is alternately hilarious and touching. Throughout the film, Hughes’ Middle America roots pop through nicely, giving the comedy an affectionately tilted homespun feel.
Nevertheless, comedy borne out of exasperation travels only so far, and round about St. Louis, or the last leg of the film, audience members are likely to become as weary and edgy as the travelers.
In short, this particular storyline could have benefited from an off-the-narrative road excursion. With Martin and Candy’s stand-up skills and Hughes’ absurdist sense, a wacko and totally extraneous production scene would have proven a welcome respite from the endless, one-thing-after-another frustrations.
Still, it is to Hughes’ credit that he keeps Planes, Trains & Automobiles on a generally fast, if geographically lax, comic track. (For high comedic purposes, he’s even moved Wisconsin somewhere midway between St. Louis and Chicago — not that anyone in provincial Hollywood would notice.)
Hughes’ savvy notwithstanding, the appeal of Planes is due to Martin and Candy’s comically controlled, ever-ingratiating performances.
Martin is superb as a man with a high boiling point who is rapidly driven bats. When he ultimately cracks up in a rental car lot, his body contorted and limbs flailing outward like a garden hose under too much pressure, it’s all the more uproarious because of the natural way he’s built upon his frustrations.
Candy once again makes an oafish character wonderfully appealing. Beneath the butterball bravura, Candy is both gentle and razor sharp. It’s a testament to Candy’s varied talents that he’s able to show the nice guy lurking beneath the nuisance.
Supporting characters are an amusing batch of roadside oddballs, most prominently Edie McClurg as a lethargic car rental clerk and Michael McKean as a by-the-book cop. Once again, Herald Examiner columnist Ben Stein makes a cameo appearance in Hughes’ traveling road show, this time perfectly cast as a bored airport announcer.
Technical credits are highlighted by John Corso’s off-the-wall, on-the-road production design. — Duane Byrge, originally published Nov. 20, 1987.
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