Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures

Neal Page is an advertising executive who just wants to fly home to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with his family. But all Neal Page gets is misery. Misery named Del Griffith -- a loud mouthed, but nevertheless lovable, salesman who leads Neal on a cross-country, wild goose chase that keeps Neal from tasting his turkey.

Steve Martin (Neal) and John Candy (Del) are absolutely wonderful as two guys with a knack for making the worst of a bad situation.

If it's painful, funny, or just plain crazy, it happens to Neal and Del in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Every traveler's nightmare in a comedy-come-true!

Director: John Hughes
Cast: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Michael McKean, Kevin Bacon
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 27 chapters; rated R; 105 min.; $29.99; street date 11/21/00.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B+/F

In 1987, hugely-successful writer/director John Hughes decided it was time to grow up cinematically. After a string of hit teen-oriented films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club, Hughes decided to take on more adult subjects and themes with 1987’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles, a comedy that dealt with the modern hassles that sometimes surround travel.

Hughes’ jump to the world of adults is largely successful, though his transition was more modest than one might think. PTAA really only shifts the age of its characters; its themes aren’t much oriented toward grown-ups. It wouldn’t take too much adjustment to make the story feature young adults or teens; after all, 1998’s I’ll Be Home For Christmas used a somewhat-similar tale and starred purported college student Jonathan Taylor Thomas, so there’s nothing about PTAA that forces it to star adults.

Not that I found this to be a problem. In PTAA, ad exec Neal Page (Steve Martin) tries to head home from New York to Chicago two days before Thanksgiving. Alas, snow delays then reroutes his plane home, and a comically nightmarish trek ensues. Against his wishes, Neal is joined by a “helpful” fellow traveler, beefy glad-hander Del Griffith (John Candy). A shower curtain ring salesman, Del constantly offers his assistance so the two can make it back to Chicago, but inevitably all of his best intentions collapse.

Stories with mismatched cohorts aren’t exactly new, and Hughes does little to expand the genre here, but the movie works well nonetheless because of its actors. Martin and Candy display ample chemistry in their only true joint venture; both men appeared in 1986’s remake of Little Shop of Horrors, but I don’t think they interacted. Their interpretations of Hughes’ material makes all the difference. Frankly, I never cared all that much for the sanitized hijinks of his films and don’t really understand the enduring popularity of pictures like Ferris, which didn’t appeal to me even in the Eighties.

However, the considerable talents of Martin and Candy prove wildly effective in PTAA. No matter how limp the material may be - and it can be pretty weak - these two liven up the tale and make the movie consistently watchable if not downright hilarious. Are Martin’s loose-limbed antics really in character with this fairly stiff and repressed businessman? No, not really, but who cares? He musters enough believability in the role to make it work, and his comedic talents have rarely been used to greater effect.

Notable is the famous scene that earned PTAA its “R”-rating all on its own. Neal attempts to rent a car to drive back to Chicago from a point in the Midwest. However, when he gets to the correct spot in the parking lot, no car resides there. He misses the bus back to the airport terminal and must hoof it across slippery terrain and a runway to return. Once he does, the combined frustration of this and all the preceding events spills out in a profanity-filled tirade aimed at the agency’s clerk. Actually, Neal’s rampage only includes one naughty word, but it’s the big one, and he uses it a lot.

While the result is terrifically funny, I was surprised to find it in the film because it single-handedly kept PTAA from a “PG-13” rating. To keep that status, a movie can have one use of the “F”-word and no more; PTAA blows that limit out of the water. Could the scene have worked as well with more mild profanity? Perhaps, perhaps not. Honestly, I think Hughes used the term so much because he actually wanted an “R”-rating. This seems illogical since that status limits the movie’s audience, but he may have been so eager to show his “adult” status that he desired the more extreme rating.

In any case, even without its profanity, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a solidly funny and entertaining film - as long as it sticks with its stars. When Martin and Candy are set loose, the movie works wonderfully and director Hughes has enough sense to let them act without too much interference. Hughes could be rather cutesy and cloying - tendencies evident when we see Neal’s nauseatingly perfect family - but the enormous talent of the film’s stars overcome its director’s flaws to make PTAA a fun and amusing effort.

The DVD:

Planes, Trains and Automobiles appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the picture displayed enough concerns to only merit a “B” rating, I generally thought it looked quite good.

Sharpness usually appeared crisp and accurate. A few interiors seemed slightly soft and hazy, but these were rather infrequent; for the most part, the movie presented a well-defined and detailed image. Moiré effects and jagged edges offered no problems, and I saw virtually no artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV.

Print flaws caused the DVD’s major issues. As a whole, the picture seemed fairly clean, but I detected some light but consistent grain. I also saw too many signs of speckles and grit plus a few instances of nicks and a small hair or two. The film lacked any truly major defects like large scratches or blotches, but it still could use a good cleaning.

Colors appeared natural and accurate throughout the movie. I thought the hues were clear and bright and they displayed no concerns related to bleeding, noise or other issues. Black levels seemed deep and rich, and shadow detail was quite strong. Even during potentially-problematic low-light interiors, I had no trouble discerning the action. As a whole, PTAA was an attractive picture that mainly suffered from excessive dirtiness.

I expected a fairly good image, but I was surprised by the high quality of the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The soundfield was nicely involving and engaging. The forward spectrum dominated and showed some very solid stereo imaging. The music spread cleanly across the front speakers, and I also heard quite a lot of discrete usage of effects. Some really fun audio resulted from this, such as when the destroyed car toward the end of the film filled the forward spectrum with its rattling.

The surrounds contributed some solid sound as well. For the most part I found the rears to appear monaural, but some split surround usage occurred; mostly these instances involved various vehicles and they were fairly minor, but they added to the soundtrack’s impression. Mostly it was the film’s music that was nicely reinforced in the rear. Clearly the soundfield doesn’t compete with something from a more recent action spectacular, but I thought it seemed quite strong nonetheless.

Also positive was the quality of the audio. Dialogue occasionally betrayed some mild edginess and could also seem slightly flat at times, but for the most part speech appeared distinct and natural, with no issues related to intelligibility. Effects were clean and realistic and showed no signs of distortion. The music - which mainly consisted of dated Eighties technopop but presented some more traditional variations as well - seemed clear and bright and displayed modest low end. As a whole, the track lacked much deep bass, but I found the dynamics to seem fairly satisfying. In the end, I thought the soundtrack of PTAA offered a nice surprise.

A less pleasant situation relates to the DVD’s supplements: there aren’t any. Nope, there isn’t even a trailer. This is an unpleasant situation in any circumstance but is made worse by the fact that many sources indicated PTAA would include some deleted scenes. I checked a variety of retailers and each of them still indicate that the DVD will have these extras, but it doesn’t.

That omission makes Planes, Trains and Automobiles a less-than-terrific DVD, though it does the basics well. The film itself succeeds nicely largely due to the chemistry of its two stars; for all his faults, director John Hughes usually has the good sense to get out of the way and not interfere with their interactions. The DVD offers pretty solid picture and sound but absolutely no extras. With a list price of $29.99 and no supplements, Planes, Trains and Automobiles may be a little pricey for a purchase, but it would definitely make for a nice holiday rental.

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