How Does “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” Show John Hughes’ Aptitude for Understanding Characters?

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) is a road movie, a buddy comedy, and so much more than either of those things. John Hughes, now revered as one of the masters of 1980s comedy, created a film with a premise so simple in concept that it sounds like a movie we should have seen a thousand times: Two guys with very different personalities are forced to endure each other’s company as they attempt to get home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. It’s such a universal concept that there’s nothing to it. But the power of any Hughes film comes through his understanding of characters. He knows who he’s writing about. Every person in the story has a clear idea, an image, and a purpose. And that humanity excels his comedies to a level of higher invention than most, elevating standard narrative concepts into full-bodied films.

Though widely known for his angsty teen films like The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), and for writing kid-centered stories like Home Alone (1990), John Hughes went full-adult for Planes, Trains and Automobiles, fashioning what stands arguably as his best character work. In his Great Movies entry, Roger Ebert wrote that “the buried story engine of Planes, Trains and Automobiles is not slowly growing friendship or odd-couple hostility (devices a lesser film might have employed), but empathy. It is about understanding how the other guy feels.”

Steve Martin and John Candy couple the material with some of their greatest performances as Neal Page and Del Griffith, respectively. Neal is a prosperous marketing executive with a fancy hat, a briefcase, and a hell of a nice watch. Del is a traveling shower curtain hook salesman with a bad hat, an enormous traveling trunk, and a cheap Casio watch. In a dumber film, this setup would be fodder for name-calling, back-and-forth belittling, and crude humor capped with a cheaply pandering life lesson thrown in at the end as attempted justification. That’s easy, crude comedy, and the type of maudlin sentimentality that frequently makes its way into holiday films.

Those moments of name-calling and belittling do occur in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but not the way typical comedy structure expects them to. As The A.V. Club writes, “Hughes pulls off one of the most ambitious gambits of this sort I can recall—a scene so indelible that it threatens to permanently yank the movie off its axis.” They are referring to the scene that comes just 25 minutes into the film’s 90-minute runtime, where Neal goes on a two-minute diatribe about what an annoying, obnoxious loser Del is. John Candy plays the scene perfectly, his face slowly sulking into a pitiful frown, the hurt welling up in his eyes, ultimately responding with “You want to hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target…. but I like me.”

Even though Del’s behavior in the first 25 minutes makes Neal’s rant seem fully justified, Del’s response makes Neal—and the audience—feel terrible for it. Neal isn’t imagined as a bad man, he’s just a restrained person with a poor response to such a jovial guy in less-than-ideal circumstances. And Del is genuinely annoying in all the ways that would bother a regular person. But it’s the timing and the lack of tolerance shown by Neal that gives the scene weight.

This is the type of confrontation that usually plays out three-fourths of the way through a picture as a moment of climax between the two headbutting protagonists. Here, John Hughes gives it to us up front, allowing it to color all the indignant events that follow. No matter how much Neal cuts Del down, Del is always there to back him up. Why? Because that’s who he is, that’s what he does, and that’s how Hughes conceived him.

Hughes’ dialogue is one of the great strengths in any film he writes. It’s authentic of the times, authentic of the characters saying the lines, and authentic with the way people act and think. When Neal’s voyage reaches the point that his character arrives at the airport rental car facility, his famous use of the word “fuck” sixteen times in 60 seconds feels earned. He is a man past his breaking point, and he reacts the way people beaten into a feeling of hopelessness react.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is Murphy’s Law in effect—everything that can go wrong to these to men, does. The hijinks and silliness one expects in a comedy still come: driving a completely burned car after a fire, backing into the wall of a motel, driving on the wrong side of the road, accidentally using another man’s underwear as a facial washcloth. But all this nonsense is interwoven with emotion that, in the film’s poignant final scenes, wells up into an emotional payoff worth sticking around for. Hughes knows we’ve come to care for both of these quirky men, despite their personal follies. They make their way back to Chicago, sure—we never doubted they somehow would. The real resolution is in the characters. It’s the Thanksgiving version of A Christmas Carol with Neal coming to realizations about Del, and about himself.

There’s a reason this big, boisterous man is the way he is, and it’s not because he thrives on chatting people up about shower curtain rings.