Neal Page is not a bad guy. He’s tightly wound, a little too serious, but the most important thing to him, even in the middle of an important business meeting, is getting back to his family for Thanksgiving. Del Griffith is not a bad guy. He’s friendly, gives everybody the benefit of the doubt, and looks for the best in every situation. These two get on like oil and water.
And throughout Planes, Trains and Automobiles, they’re forced to interact with each other and recognize their faults, and the other’s virtues. It’s a remarkable, and remarkably funny film about very different people being forced to get along.
They’re forced to do so because weather and transportation companies conspire to bring them together. After a tumultuous time getting to the airport (where Del inadvertently steals Neal’s taxi), they end up seat mates, and together again when their flight is diverted from Chicago to Wichita, Kansas. Del has the foresight to call a friend who can get them a hotel room, where their problems with each other come to a head.
Del’s a slob; Neal’s a tight-ass. But Del has a certain decency. And so does Neal. When it’s clear Neal has hurt Del’s feelings, they form a small treaty, just as far as the airport. And then the train yard. And then the car rental agency because no matter how hard Neal works to get away from Del, it doesn’t work. They’re stuck on this hellish trip to Chicago together.
Neal Page (Steve Martin) is immediately sympathetic, and Del Griffith (John Candy) is irritating. But the film performs an interesting and delicate balancing act between the two characters. While Neal Page is the protagonist and is going to go through most of the learning in the movie, his lesson is not that Del Griffith has the secret to life. It avoids the easy conversion story for something closer to real life. Neal doesn’t have to learn to be like Del. He just has to learn that it’s okay for Del to be Del.
The road to this revelation is difficult, sometimes tortuous, and often hilarious. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a mostly realistic movie, taking a few mild forays into absurdity (and one wild one when there’s a near car accident.) Writer and director John Hughes was better known at the time for documenting the middle class ’80s teen experience, with Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is about adult frustration, and how quickly adult coping mechanisms can devolve into the childish arena.
Del’s coping involves indulgence. He eats too much, destroys the bathroom. Spills beer. Neal copes with attempts at control and finger pointing. He is quite ready to make somebody else feel worse, so he’ll feel better. He gets most of the comeuppances in the film, though Del’s anarchic lifestyle does result in a soggy bed, a burnt-up car, and several miles driving down the wrong side of the road.
The performances by the leads are pitch perfect. Both are playing directly to type: Steve Martin is an irritated sophisticate. John Candy is an affable oaf. But they embody the types so fully they realize them as real people. And in the film’s final moments, there’s a real emotional catharsis as Neal comes to finally understand Del.
Unfortunately, what is not as well realized is the 4K transfer on this disc. It’s a victim of over-enthusiastic DNR – digital noise reduction. This is meant to filter the image to create something clearer. All too often, this means the death of a proper grainy filmic image. Much of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles looks creepily digital and smeary. It isn’t terrible or unwatchable, but it doesn’t have the pop of a proper 4K filmic presentation.
Which is a shame, since Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the ultimate Thanksgiving movie, and coming out at just the right time. The eternal lesson of the film is about reacting less and listening more. It embodies empathy. And it’s often gut-bustingly hilarious. Both Steve Martin and John Candy indicated it was a favorite film of theirs, and I think that’s because their characters are the most complete embodiment of their public, comic personas. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a hilarious comedy, but it’s also a real movie about how people are, how the live. And how they grow.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles has been released by 4K UHD by Paramount. The release does have a digital code, and while a two-disc release the second Blu-ray does not contain the film. Extras on the 4K include “Getting There is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (16 min), a short featurette with press interviews; “John Hughes: Life Moves Pretty Fast” (54 min), a two-part documentary about the filmmaker; “John Hughes for Adults” (4 min), an overview of the director’s adult-centered films; “A Tribute to John Candy” (3 min).
The new and most exciting extras on this release are on the second Blu-ray. It’s more than an hour of previously unseen deleted and extended scenes, which showcase the chemistry and humor of Steve Martin and John Candy. The quality is dubious; these come from VHS archives discovered in John Hughes archives. There’s also a short (4 min) footage of Dylan Baker’s audition for the role of Owen.