For nearly a decade, between 1983's "Vacation" and 1992's "Home Alone 2," the world was blessed by a writer/director/producer who churned out one timeless, iconic comedy after another. Among many others, John Hughes most prominently gave us "The Breakfast Club," "Sixteen Candles," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Uncle Buck," "Christmas Vacation" and "Home Alone."
Each has its own brilliance, but when it comes to the yeoman's work of delivering the kind of laughs that make you lose control of yourself, 1987's "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" stands alone.
Before, there was only the Marx Brothers' "A Night at the Opera;" since, there's only been "The Hangover." But other than those two, no movie has made me laugh harder than "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles." In fact, if forced to choose the funniest scene ever, it would most certainly be Steve Martin's brilliantly profane meltdown at a car rental counter.
Set during Thanksgiving weekend, writer/director Hughes (who loved to set films during holidays) tells the simple story of Neal Page (Martin), a man who simply wants to get to Chicago in time to be with his family for Thanksgiving dinner. Neal's a good man, a loving husband and father; but he's also stuffy, fussy, fastidious, a little snooty, and hundreds of miles away in New York City.
Resolved to get home after bad weather cancels his flight, against his every instinct, Neal hooks up with shower ring salesman Del Griffith (The Mighty John Candy), a boorish slob to be sure, but a boorish slob who seems resourceful enough to get Neal where he needs to go.
Plot-wise, what happens next doesn't really matter. All you need know is that Hughes brilliantly accomplishes the most difficult thing there is in comedy: he builds one laugh upon the other and then, at the exact right moment, releases the comedic pressure in a scene so perfectly executed it should come with gauze to wrap your aching sides. There's not just Neal's f-ing meltdown, there's also that first morning when Neal and Del wake up cuddling, "You're going the wrong way!," and so much more.
By design, road movies almost always feel episodic and a little contrived as they look for reasons to keep the plot churning. Hughes' script, a masterpiece of structure, never falls into that trap. The story's construction is seamless and none of the bad luck our heroes run into ever feels contrived or manufactured.
But like he did with all his best films, Hughes infuses "Planes" with a big bursting heart. Neal and Del just want to get home to their loved ones. That's their only goal, and Hughes makes sure you're just as invested in that goal as they are. But the real emotional pay-off comes from the friendship that slowly and awkwardly develops between the two men – two polar opposites brought together by bad weather and the worst kind of luck. As though it were a romantic comedy, you really want to see Neal and Del find a way to be together.
Other than what Hughes brings, what makes "Planes" so successful is its two leads. The "road" chemistry between Martin and Candy is every bit as perfect as Hope and Crosby, and their individual performances are equally brilliant. Like the story itself, though there are some wonderfully cartoonish moments, throughout all the mayhem and reversals, the characters remain grounded. At least half the laughs come from how much you can relate to what you're watching.
My only complaint about Hughes' masterpiece is the score -- which might be one of the worst ever. But the rest is so perfect, you hardly notice. And while it's hard to believe it's been 25 years since its release, there isn't a single moment that feels dated. "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is a holiday perennial. Twenty-five viewings later the laughs have never grown old, nor has the emotional kicker of an ending.
Let me tell you, in this awful era of the depraved, cold, distant, smug, and superior Will Ferrell comedies, we should all be grateful for home video, especially Blu-ray releases like this one that include a beautiful high-def transfer and all kinds of extras that allow you to savor the film long after it's over.
"Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is available at Amazon.com.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC