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Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

by on 2011/11/26

“Look, I don’t want to be rude, but I’m not much of a conversationalist, and I really want to finish this article.”

* * * *

Sometimes referred to “John Hughes for adults”, Planes, Trains and Automobiles marked a turning point for the auteur renowned for coming-of-age works like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Some Kind of Wonderful. And although the celebrated writer/director might pose as edgy or sardonic (when he bothered to appear in public at all) his choice of subject matter and creative tone revealed a sensitive soul.

Now commonly seen as a (rare) Thanksgiving adventure, the tale follows Neal Page (Steve Martin) as a New York City marketing man, trying to get to Chicago for the holidays. Predictably, every possible thing that could go wrong for him does. It’s an unusual role for him, straighter and less goofy than, say, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

For better or worse, he’s accompanied by a traveling salesman, Del Griffith (John Candy). Candy too is cast nearly against type in this piece . . . funny, no doubt, but more vulnerable and dramatic than in something like Hughes’ Uncle Buck.

Together they head for Chicago, embodying the phrase “chalk and cheese”. It’s not all Odd Couple conflict or pratfalls. Let’s call it a bittersweet dramedy. From time to time I thought of Up in the Air, in which a mercenary downsizer and motivational speaker lives an indefinite life-of-sorts, without roots, forever on the move.

Neither is P.T.A. a dour affair, however. It balances its poles expertly, with untiring pacing, and a skilled knack for flipping between distinct tones when need be. Its highs and lows feel like real life . . . or at least a collection of plausible highlights.

The nitpicker in me wants to seize on some nagging issues: “gag” moments, gross-out humour, and too-on-the-nose visual jokes. But as I type out these sentences, I know I won’t list any examples. While I accept my own role as the “chalk” on our site — I too am picky and dislike pay phones — I can’t fight the power this time. I’ve probably seen this favourite a dozen times, and its faults are as insubstantial as they are wholly inconsequential.

Hilarious, real, affecting, and rewatchable . . . these adjectives suggest why I love it so much. And even if I didn’t, it might be worthwhile for the great decorations. The cameos and soundtrack are particular favourites of mine.

A raft of familiar faces show up amongst those cameos: Kevin Bacon (X-Men: First Class), Dylan Baker (the Spider-Man series), Bill Erwin (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Michael Ferrero (Jurassic Park), Larry Hankin (Running Scared), Michael McKean (This Is Spinal Tap), William Windom (The Twilight Zone), and Edie McClurg, Ben Stein, and Lyman Ward, all of Ferris Bueller.

And the music is another win. Ira Newborn’s score enthralls me, particularly the guilty pleasures of his synthetic backdrops, during a taxi chase, a train ride, and the second hotel room. A variety of old blues and country tracks are reinterpreted throughout, and I caught myself reflexively singing along to “Back in Baby’s Arms”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, “Mess Around”, and “Red River Valley”.

My greatest residual issue is the film being restricted in America. That assignment was likely made because of the car rental exchange in which Neal vents his frustration so profanely. Regardless, I dispute it should prevent most people from catching up on video. With no nudity, no excess violence, and most coarse language confined to that one scene, it’s difficult to imagine a legitimate objection to this amusing and affecting travelogue. (See This Film Is Not Yet Rated for more on the certification debate.)

Always worth celebrating, especially at Thanksgiving, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is also a tradition worth beginning, revisiting, or sharing.

* * * *

Rated PG (Canada) / R (United States)

92 minutes

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