If someone who has never seen “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” asks just what exactly happens to the hapless pair, Steve Martin and John Candy, as they attempt to make it home to family by Thanksgiving, the answer “everything” is only a slight exaggeration. From the moment, his flight is cancelled, and Steve’s stuck making conversation with a genial (or obnoxious depending on your take) shower curtain ring salesman John, who keeps appearing just when he’s hoped he’s seen the last of him, the two men are in for a rocky ride. (Literally and figuratively.)
The 1987 comedy relies on one of several reliable John Hughes’ plots: an odd couple overcoming obstacles on a road trip to make it home for the holidays. (This is also the plot of the less funny “Dutch.”) No one escapes to the Big City in order to romp around like it’s their own personal playground for learning life lessons; rather, Steve and John endure endless misery until a happy ending arrives a couple hours later. By then, they’ve encountered fire, freezing weather, vehicle destruction, private grabbing, theft, a sing-along to “The Flintstones,” and more, as they take two steps back for every baby step toward their destination. Some highlights of their trip:
John manages to almost wreck the rental when he’s gesturing to a good song on the radio (while Steve dozes in the passenger seat), and then manages to total it for real, driving, as two horrified, wildly gesturing motorists put it, “THE WRONG WAY!”
Steve delivers a profanity-heavy speech to the car rental agent, played amusingly by Edie McClurg, about why he needs a new car, and after learning that he does not have the rental agreement, gets a nice big f-you, in the same sweet voice she employed as Ed Rooney’s secretary so well in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Steve and John wind up sharing a double bed in a ratty motel and wake up in a compromising position, which they deal with by loudly discussing sports after leaping up horrified.
But the two men do learn something about tolerance and friendship, particularly Steve’s uptight executive. John, despite or perhaps because of the traits that drive Steve crazy, is an excellent salesman (in one scene he convinces a group of girls that the shower curtain rings would make cool earrings), and he manages to grow on Steve to the point that they wind up not only making Thanksgiving home but sharing it together. With Steve’s wife, too, of course.