Paramount // 1987 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // December 4th, 2000
Anything to get home.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of John Hughes' best films, and certainly the best one done for adults. This comedy with Steve Martin playing straight man to the late John Candy has become something of a Thanksgiving tradition; and over the years my estimation of the film has grown. Paramount has now released the film on DVD, but without extras or even their usual high standards in picture quality.
Neil Page (Steve Martin) is a marketing executive with only one goal: to get home in time for Thanksgiving. But mishap after mishap keeps him from being able to get from New York to Chicago by any normal means, and he seems to be stuck with the smothering slob Del Griffith (John Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman on the road. The well meaning but annoying man is constantly frustrating the straitlaced Page, but no matter where he turns they end up together. By various methods of transportation (guess which ones) the pair hit the road trying to get home despite weather, robbery, and other obstacles.
That's a pretty dry description of a movie that doesn't depend so much on story as characters and situations. It is basically an odd couple movie mixed with a road picture. Two people couldn't be more different, and they keep getting thrown together in funny or sometimes terrible situations. From the situational comedy aspect it works pretty well, with some moments that border on genius. The scene in which Steve Martin and John Candy wake up holding each other will always stick out in my memory. But there is more to the film than the wacky comedy; and I think those more touching elements are what makes the film a classic rather than just another comedy passed by for the newest flavor. Del Griffith may be a foil for much of the comedy, but he is also a somewhat tragic figure, who elicits sympathy and gets it. I really felt good when the friendship blossomed, as it surely must in this type of film.
The film is on the surface about the trials and tribulations about holiday travel, but the theme of the friendship is even more important. What develops friendship is often not just sharing good times; the sharing of adversity builds it even more. Certainly Neil Page has more than his share of adversity. Steve Martin played against type by being the straight man for most of the humor; things happen to him rather than him driving the action. His performance is without flaw, though his character isn't always likable. The late John Candy was the real standout though, and he is missed. His comic timing, his way of being a big likable bear who still could aggravate the most patient man created an altogether memorable character.
It is unfortunate this review had to appear after Thanksgiving, for it is the perfect time to see the film. The main goal of the characters is to get home; for Neil Page all that is good in his life is there. His work and certainly his temperament for travel are less than happy, and only his love for his wife and kids really makes him likable until late in the film. For Del, it is helping this stranger to get home, from a man who apparently sees a stranger as a friend he hasn't met yet. Thanksgiving represents all that is good about being home with family, and provides the most touching element of the film. It still isn't too late to see the film and just think of Christmas.
For a long time, I wasn't that much of a fan of this film. Steve Martin didn't work as well as a straight man as he does carrying the humor, but this was the beginning of a real shift in the type of comedy he would do. For a long time I didn't much care for the "new" Steve Martin, who I remembered best when he was a banjo playing stand-up wild man with an arrow through his head. Over the years I think I've grown to like the more mature Martin; perhaps I'm just getting older. But I think it was the repeated viewings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles that brought more respect and affection. First time viewers need to stick with the characters early on to get to the good stuff. And I think you should be willing to give it a second try if the first didn't take; it is the type of film that grows on you. I still think Ferris Bueller's Day Off is Hughes' best film, but this is his best that didn't involve teenagers.
Speaking of Ferris Bueller, it is a shame that this DVD didn't get the treatment that film got. Whereas Bueller got a very nice looking transfer, this one suffers from a variety of problems. I admit that at least the colors look pretty good and the transfer is anamorphic, but that is where the praise ends. Film dirt, nicks, and blemishes are all too evident, and too many artifacts including pixelization creep up. The image is rather soft as well; surprising since this was taken from a hi-def master. This is definitely a step below what we've come to expect from Paramount, and even a step below what we've come to expect from the DVD format.
The sound does fare quite a bit better than the video transfer, and could reasonably be put in the positive portion of the review. The soundtrack has been remixed to Dolby Digital 5.1, and is excellent. Dialogue is clear and well integrated into a wide, spacious front soundstage. The surrounds work very well for ambient sounds, such as in the airport. When the musical score kicks in, all channels bring it out for a nice hemispheric environment.
Again I must compare the shoddy treatment of this disc to the much better one given Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Whereas the latter got a commentary track, this one gets nothing. Not even a trailer. Earlier Paramount had announced the disc would contain deleted scenes, but as I said nothing is here. What a shame for a film of this caliber.
This is a case where the film is much better than the treatment given it for DVD. While I recommend the film, I can't recommend the disc, particularly at the $29.95 price point. So I'm going to say give it a rental during the holidays, and hold out for a better picture and supplements before you plunk down your cash.
Paramount is found guilty of aggravated assault on a fine film, by denying the viewer a high quality picture or any extra content. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is absolutely acquitted, especially since it's the holiday season.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R