I come to praise John Candy – to mangle the famous phrase – not to bury him. This hugely talented Canadian comic actor has been dead a little over 26 years, and yet one can watch the landscape of American comedy filmmaking and still miss his presence. He was one of a classic generation of funny performers, working alongside the likes of Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Richard Pryor. He always boasted one thing that those actors often lacked, however: an honest sense of humanity about him. It did not matter the role, the character, or the context. John Candy had a way of making his audience genuinely feel for his characters. That seems exceptionally true of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Neal Page (Steve Martin) is an over-stressed marketing executive attempting to get home from New York to Chicago for Thanksgiving weekend. When weather forces his plane to land in Wichita, he finds his fortunes tied to fellow traveller Del Griffith (John Candy) – possibly the most irritating and counter-productive travelling companion in the world.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a 1987 American comedy film written and directed by John Hughes. It marked a distinct departure for Hughes from his earlier successes, which had all been comedies or dramas about teenagers including Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986). Unlike those films, Planes is an out-and-out comedy about grown adults. Unlike the standard road trip fare that comes with the genre, however, the film reflects Hughes’ sensibilities in giving its characters an unusual degree of depth and humanity. It is an exaggerated comedy certainly, but it still feels as if it is about actual people.
The set-up positions Steve Martin as the straight man, which actually works tremendously well for him. He gives Neal a comedic edge, and a certain over-the-top nature when he rails against his progressively terrible situation, but all-in-all he is a strong and reliable lead. What makes his portrayal work so well is that for the most part he keeps Neal’s growing frustration pent up, so that when he finally explodes – a tantrum in a hire vehicle car park comes to mind – it is even more entertaining than normal.
In the film’s opposite corner, then, there is Candy’s Del. He is, it seems, the world’s most annoying travelling companion. He is also a performative tightrope for any actor: too annoying and the audience would simply hate him. Not annoying enough, and the audience would simply hate Steve Martin’s character for being a bully. Candy does a very special thing in his acting here: he gives Del not only a warm heart, but a ridiculous level of credulity. Del visibly means well but is outrageously blind to his own behaviour, to such a degree that Candy is free to make the untoward behaviour as objectionable as possible. He can push Del to extremes because to dislike him for it would seem like kicking a puppy. It is honestly one of the finest comedy performances of 1980s cinema.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles marks a return for director John Hughes to the more straightforward comedy that kicked off his career, after several years of hugely successful teen movies. It feels he learned something during those teen years; there’s a depth to the characters that feels as if it has rubbed off. It is by no means his best work, but – thanks largely to John Candy’s wonderful performance – remains a minor gem.