As a kid, I was a big fan of John Hughes’ films. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Uncle Buck, and the Home Alone films were all great films that I enjoyed. It was probably two years ago that I watched this film and I immediately loved it. It’s actually my favorite John Hughes film to date.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a comedy about a middle aged advertising executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) who is trying to get home to his family for Thanksgiving. He is in New York, his family is in Chicago. On this disastrous trip, he encounters his worst nightmare, shower certain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy).
So, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles follows a three act structure. The protagonist of the film is Neal who is in desperate need to get home. The antagonist of the film is Del. An unusual thing about the structure of this film is that the plot points are at the very beginning and the very end of the film. In the very first scene of the film, we see Neal impatiently trying to get out of work, while his boss can’t make up his mind about what advertisement they should use. The last scene of the film is when Neal finally arrives home. This film is also both a narrative and experience driven film. While the story is a series of events that keep Neal from going to his family, it becomes a very emotional story. It reveals a lot about both Neal and Del, with Del’s story becoming the main focus for the ending.
As a character Neal is very angry, honest, and hysterical through out the film. His behavior and actions show this. When he gets left alone at the car parking lot with no car, he yells, and throws his ticket away in anger. His dialogue only shows us the same thing. He is mean to Del, right to his face. In one scene when they share a room in a motel, he criticizes Del for being terrible at telling jokes. He’s literally deteriorating through out most of this film. Everything that can go wrong for Neal, does. The only thing that keeping him from completely losing it is the thought of being at home with his family for Thanksgiving. His background is created with cut away’s of his family at home, waiting for him. This is important not only to show us how his family looks like, but to emphasize his main goal, and to have the audience be able to sympathize with him. While Neal may seem like a bad person for most of this film, we realize that he’s not. He’s just very desperate to get home.
As for Del, he is quite the opposite character. He seems like a positive, caring person, with only good intentions. Del might be clumsy, but he is trying to do his best to get to Chicago himself. Everything Del says and does reflects this. He sells shower certain rings when he and Neal are desperate for money. He offers Neal a motel room out of the goodness of his heart. The only thing about Del that we can’t immediately see is his main conflict, his inability to deal with his past. By the end of the film, we realize that Del doesn’t have a home, and that he was married but his wife died. For most of the film, Del has Neal believing that he has a wife. Del hid this information, but we are able to see signs of this with his body language, and even with some of the things that he says like “I haven’t been home for years.” He just laughs it off as a sarcastic joke. Unlike Neal, Del also doesn’t have such a strong main goal. Unconsciously, he just wants to travel with Neal. He’s lonely, he just wants some company for the holidays.
A lesson that I learned in this film come from the famous f – word scene. (This is the scene that gave the film an R rating instead of a family friendly PG one). It is the scene when Neal is left in a large parking lot with no car. He manages to walk back from a very long distance, where he then confronts a car rental employee about this problem. This is when he totally loses it and yells about 20 “fucks” in about 30 seconds. What I learned in this scene is that great comedy is not only unexpected, but it must also have a purpose. Up to this part of the film, Neal has been bottling up his anger. He has made little progress on his trip home so it is inevitable, and only natural, that he would finally lose it and behave this way. I totally buy his behavior. The scene itself is funny, but seeing Neal reach his breaking point is why this scene is so memorable.
Well now for the conclusion for the film. I can’t get much better, really. Neal finally gets to Chicago with Del. As he rides the subway home, Neal realizes that Del doesn’t have a wife and that he didn’t say where he was going for Thanksgiving. He remembers some of the things that Del said about “Not being home in years.” So he goes back, and sees Del alone in the subway station. What Neal thought was true. So he invites Del to his home, to have Thanksgiving with his family. While this ending might sound cliched, it isn’t (watch the movie to see why). The reason why I feel that it works so well is that while the film can be a bit ridiculous at times, these characters seem like real people. They are so well written that it works. You can’t help but get caught up in how emotional this ending is. Especially at the very end, when Neal gets home, meets his family, and introduces Del, you can’t help but get choked up (at least I couldn’t). This is why having relatable, detailed characters is so important. Characters are what people relate to in a film, so by having them be so strong, you can turn a slapstick comedy into a beautiful film.