Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of the funniest movies of the 1980s, and unlike many of director John Hughes’ films from that era, it holds up very well even today. While it’s not a movie that cries out for a Blu-ray release, it certainly can’t hurt to get it out again in a new format. If you haven’t seen it yet, now you can in somewhat glorious HD.
At the time he wrote and directed Planes, Trains and Automobiles, John Hughes was known primarily as writer/director focused on teens. Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and several others looked at the life and romantic entanglements of the high school set. It’s a bit surprising, then, that his best movie is about two middle-aged men and doesn’t feature any dialogue spoken by anyone under 35.
The plot is simplicity itself: advertising executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) attempts to get home to Chicago before Thanksgiving and is unwillingly saddled with shower-ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy), who proceeds to get on his very last nerve. Neal’s trip is thwarted by the well-meaning but oafish Del, the weather, and those fine folks in the travel industry who never fail to make a bad situation worse. With Del’s annoying optimism in his ear as one mode of transportation after another goes to hell, Neal slowly boils until he lashes out at Del in a funny and poignant scene.
It’s hard to say if Martin or Candy has ever been better, but as with Hughes’ script, their performances could make an argument as the best work of either’s career. Both actors have a challenge of being true to their character without becoming unlikable while delivering some of the funniest lines written around that time, and they both hit every right note. It’s a grown-up comedy without being snooty and doesn’t mind throwing in some lowbrow humor (“Those aren’t pillows!”) when needed.
Hughes does seem to have left much of Neal’s relationship with his wife Susan (Laila Robins) on the cutting room floor, which makes their phone calls seem like part of a whole we are missing, but that’s small potatoes here. Neal and Del are the only characters who really matter, and while there are funny cameos everywhere from the likes of Kevin Bacon, Edie McClurg, Michael McKean, and Dylan Baker, it’s the relationship between the two men that brings all the biggest laughs. The frustration of the events as you try to travel for work are hit perfectly (believe me, I know), and while there isn’t a big “moral” at the end of the day, there is a humanity element that Hughes brings to the character of Del that makes you want to treat your fellow man with more consideration and understanding in times of stress.
You don’t have to be a middle-age businessman on the road to get a lot of laughs out of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. It’s sometimes not mentioned the way it should be with some of the greats of the era, but it’s also near impossible to find someone who doesn’t like the movie. It should be a Thanksgiving staple in your household.
While Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a classic and should be in your collection, I’m not sure the Blu-ray release is a must-have. If you already have a previous DVD version, there is very little reason to upgrade. The picture quality is no great shakes. That may just be from this being a nearly 25-year-old movie, but it doesn’t scream, “Wow, HD is awesome.” There is also no commentary track and most of the extras appear to be recycled from previous DVD releases.
While that all sounds very negative, it’s not as though the extras aren’t enjoyable. It’s just that most of them don’t relate to the movie specifically, and there isn’t much “behind-the-scenes” info in the various featurettes. The 15-minute (and poorly named) “Getting There is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” contains portions of the original press conference for the movie, with Martin, Candy, and Hughes answering reporters’ questions. Some bit players from the movie (McKean, the casting director) make additional comments in the present day (or rather, the present day when they shot this extra, probably 2009). Martin does not participate except in the old footage, which is disappointing, and other than McKean mentioning that his scene was meant to be longer and explaining some details of what was cut, there is nothing insightful in the whole featurette.
The only other extra that deals with the movie itself is a recycled deleted scene called “Airplane Food.” It features the meal on the first flight that Neal and Del take. All the other extras refer in passing to the movie but feature either John Candy or, primarily, John Hughes. There are three featurettes about Hughes, two lasting almost 30 minutes apiece and one for about five minutes. The two longer extras are overviews of Hughes’ career in the 1980s, disappearance from Hollywood in the 1990s, and death in 2009. Although his work on apparently non-Paramount films like Breakfast Club, , and Weird Science are ignored or barely referenced, it is a good overview of a man who was rarely interviewed. The interviews used (one of which sounds like it is by Kevin Bacon) are on grainy videotape from the 1980s, so it may be one of the few places you can hear the man speak about his work. Candy is given a five-minute overview, with people talking about him as a nice person and great comic actor.
The disc is just not unique enough to be essential and the transfer isn’t that impressive. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is, however, a great movie and if you don’t already have it on DVD, this is as good a version as any.