My readers will know of my almost visceral dislike of American cinema post Star Wars so I am delighted to say how much I enjoyed Planes Trains and Automobiles, a film that was recommended to me as it crossed the categories of car, train and plane movies. It’s a comedy but more than that. If you have not seen it stop here, as I might ruin the end for you.
Steve Martin plays Neal Page, a rich marketing executive, desperate to get back from New York to Chicago on the 6pm flight for Thanksgiving. His first attempt to get a taxi is thwarted by Kevin Bacon , uncredited, and his second by a roly poly shower ring salesman Del played by the Canadian actor John Candy. The two are wedded together on the journey from hell. The plane is diverted to Wichita, they finish up in St Louis and have various disasters on the road. Neal becomes heartily sick of the garrulously jolly Del and at one point opens up on him in his pent up rage. Del’s face is a picture but at this moment the mood in the film changes from sympathy for Neal, who can’t get back to his family, to Del who has some inner sadness not hitherto disclosed. Finally they get back to Chicago. Neal boards a train at the Loop in the centre, hugs Del and on the final journey visualises the welcome from his family. Then he thinks of Del and realises something is wrong here, returns to the station and there, on his own in the waiting area, sits Del. It transpires that his beloved wife Marie died 8 years ago and he has no home. Whilst Neal raged and fulminated at everything that went wrong on his journey, Del stayed cheerful, helpful and positive, but he had nowhere to go on his.
So Neal suddenly finds some compassion within him and invites Del to join his family for Thanksgiving. The huge trunk, in which Del carried his shower fittings and worldly possessions, is lugged one last time by the two. In a final scene of understated perfection, which would not have left a dry eye in the house, the bovine face of Del reflects both sadness that he has no wife to hug, but happiness for his pal.
In this moment we realise that it is not the rich family Neal, who has made his own journey of self-discovery, but Del – bumptious, talkative, idiotic Del – who is the bigger man of the two. The film, achingly funny in parts, ends with great tenderness as a statement on the human spirit. I could not recommend it heartily enough, not least for the brilliant acting of Martin and Candy who master every mood. I thank my friend Jerry Price for recommending it to me.