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Everyone has a handful of go-to comedies; these films cheer us up when we feel down, give us hope when we feel hopeless, and make us laugh when we need a hit of endorphins. For me, one of these comedy gems is the John Hughes classic, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and in many ways, it remains one of my favourite John Hughes movies. But, before I explore this timeless comedy gem, let me address the elephant in the room. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is, of course, a Thanksgiving movie, not a Christmas one. But, despite this, many of its themes reflect the classic Christmas movie template.
Anyone who has commuted long distances for work understands the premise at the heart of John Hughes’ movie. After all, the experience of transport delays and cancellations has impacted more than a few of us when all we want to do is get home. But, Planes, Trains and Automobiles takes this further by exploring the foundations of work, home and happiness. Here we have two characters who, for differing reasons, are away from home most of the time. Neal Page (Steve Martin) is a successful businessman working in the ad industry. Neal’s very identity is built around his high-paying job and ability to provide for his family. Meanwhile, Del Griffith (John Candy) is a man who buys and sells just to scrape together a meagre existence.
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While Neal’s nomadic business life is built on a need to provide for his family, Del’s wandering isolation is not a choice. Planes, Trains and Automobiles dissect the 80s capitalist dream within this framework. Here Hughes opens up a debate on the winners and losers of the American dream and the thin line that divides them. While simultaneously exploring themes of home, family and support through an unlikely yet tender friendship of convenience.
Christmas movies have long followed a path created by Charles Dickens in 1843 in his book A Christmas Carol. This Dickensian path contains themes of redemption, enlightenment and hope as our lead characters find festive cheer through adversity, spiritual awakening or love. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles, this sense of awakening may not be religious or spiritual, but it is tied to these classic festive themes using a traditional road trip template. For Neal, personal change comes through his realisation that family and friendship are far more important than work, while for Del, hope is born through a road trip friendship that allows him to grieve for his late wife and accept his predicament. Neal and Del are a Christmas miracle for each other, their turbulent and random meeting an end and a new beginning.
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These deep social undercurrents ensure Planes, Trains, and Automobiles rises far above the standard road-trip comedy in its emotional power and gravitas. Hughes’ outstanding screenplay brings us a series of comedic set pieces that lodge in the viewer’s memory, from a cheap motel room with one bed to a flaming hot car journey and a train ride to nowhere. But, the central performances of Martin and Candy truly bring Hughes’ script to life, with both actors offering us comedic perfection.
Many classic comedy movies diminish in their impact and humour over time, their comedy firmly attached to a set time and place. Yet, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, like The Pink Panther Returns or Home Alone remains as funny today as it was in 1987. But, added to this timeless humour, the messages at the film’s heart are just as relevant to today’s world. After all, since its release in 1987, the fine line between security and poverty has only become thinner as the wealth gap has grown bigger.
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As a writer and director, John Hughes brought us a wealth of incredible movies, but Planes, Trains and Automobiles is undoubtedly one of his best. Why? First, out of all Hughes films in the director’s chair, Planes, Trains and Automobiles transcends the year of its birth by embracing a timeless aesthetic. This sets it apart from many of Hughes’ earlier movies, where stories were rooted in 80s fashion, music and experience. Second, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of Hughes’ strongest screenplays, its complexity rivalling that of The Breakfast Club. Third, Hughes’ rich comedy carries a sharp emotional and social edge that beautifully reflects the fragility of the American dream. Finally, add to these strengths the genius of John Candy and Steve Martin, and the result is one of the finest comedy movies of the past fifty years and one of the most memorable.