Planes, Trains And Automobiles Was A Hard-Won 'Breakthrough' For Steve Martin's Career

"What he really wanted was to spend Thanksgiving with his family. What he got was three days with the turkey."

The tagline of "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" promises laughs, and writer-director-producer John Hughes delivers plenty in its snappy 97-minute runtime. Though his 1987 feature is a comedy, Hughes was diverging from the wry humor of his early National Lampoon days and earnest teen-centric comedies like "Sixteen Candles."

It would star Steve Martin as the uptight marketing exec Neal Page, whose journey from NYC back home to Chicago is disrupted, and ultimately enriched, by John Candy's heart-of-gold salesman — and tagline "turkey" — Del Griffith. What should be a cab and a flight home in time for Thanksgiving turns into a three-day trek that rivals Lope de Aguirre's odyssey of folly, except instead of the Amazonian landscape, the unforgiving travel routes of northeast U.S.A. threaten the hero's ambitions at every turn. Missed flights, rental car mix-ups, and exercises in empathy pepper the journey. It's as tender as a John Hughes movie is guaranteed to be, with heartfelt performances from two comedy luminaries that make for heart-warming holiday viewing.

By the mid-'80s, Steve Martin was an Emmy-winning writer and recognizable star, known for both his stand-up comedy and his frequent appearances on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Muppet Show," not to mention movies like "The Jerk," for which he's still revered. At the crest of a creative pivot towards more poignant roles, Martin saw Hughes' script as an opportunity. 

Kirk Honeycutt's tribute book "John Hughes: A Life in Pictures" offers behind-the-scenes insight into the American filmmaker and his work; therein, Martin recalls:

"At that point in my career, this was the direction I was headed for — more emotional roles. So this was a real breakthrough for me."

You're messing with the wrong guy!

Neal Page isn't exactly a "serious" role in the context of the film; much of its humor comes from observing Page squirm under a parade of adversity both common (a blizzard grounds Neal's flight) and absurd (the duo's nearly-melted car still runs like a fine Swiss watch). One of the movie's funniest moments observes the man teetering on the edge of a "Falling Down"-level meltdown at a Marathon Car Rental office. Paired with John Candy's jolly, slightly irritating shower curtain ring sales pro, the duo assumes the dynamic of a more compassionate Odd Couple — but this Oscar and Felix will tug harder at the heartstrings.

Hughes' tale would give Martin the chance to ascend beyond the story's hilarious series of unfortunate events to an emotional plane where he could touch the audience without the need for constant pratfalls. As the alliance between Neal and Del reaches its growing-pain stage on the way to friendship, Neal finally loses it and delivers a brutal rant against his travel-mate.

Not only is the scene a perfect showcase of Martin and Candy's mutual magnetism (their tag-team ad-libbing also added hours to their shooting days), it reveals a creative expansion for each. Candy could play the fool and reach heavy emotional truths, and Martin could swing from wild and crazy guy to the straight man with ease, leading to career-high roles for both actors in the years to come. We're thankful for the laughs, the tears, and the new 4K release of a holiday viewing staple.