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MOVIE REVIEWS : ‘Planes’ Goes on Quite a Trip

Times Film Critic

“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (citywide), which is enough to keep everyone home for the holidays, traces the peculiar geographic odyssey of a pair of businessmen--the dapper Neal Page (Steve Martin) and the uncool Del Griffith (John Candy)--trying to get home to Chicago from New York for Thanksgiving. As it turns out, the trip is only slightly less perilous than Robert Falcon Scott’s in the Antarctic.

Writer-director John Hughes has made his film a catalogue of worst travel experiences, beginning in New York, where commuters are virtually hijacking taxis, and continuing through the men’s flight, which is diverted far, far away from its landing at socked-in O’Hare International--to Wichita, Kan., to be exact. From there, storm-stayed in each other’s company, they try everything except Flexie Flyers in the struggle homeward.

The movie’s humor comes from Martin, fastidious as a Siamese cat, trying to get away from curtain-ring salesman Candy, who is actually the more resourceful traveler. In Martin’s book, there is no salt of the earth; there is only the earth-shaking assault on his sensibilities by this crude, boisterous, overly friendly behemoth. In Candy’s book, hey, misery loves company, eh?

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The film is schizoid. It’s best when Hughes turns the screen over to these two masters of physical humor: Candy, driving down a freeway at night, tripping out to Ray Charles’ “Doin’ the Mess Around,” playing every instrument in the band on the car’s dashboard as he burns up the freeway--only too literally. Or the elegant Martin, his slim body contorted into a war dance of rage after his invective at a car rental agency has backfired, leaving him car-less.

Fortunately, there is a lot of physical stuff in “Planes, Trains” and a lot that turns on a combination of sight gags and the comedians’ hair-trigger timing. When a highway patrolman, surveying a car that seems to have been barbecued, asks the absolutely rhetorical, “Do you think this car is safe for highway travel?” the speed of Candy’s cheerful, positive, “Yes, I do,” propels the laugh right out of you.

But there are also great patches based on the humor of abuse, which either sits well with you or leaves you detached and even mildly offended. Martin is given these scenes--moments when the strain of putting up with Candy is too great and he tells this great boob every one of his failings.

Candy is not impervious to wounds; his response is to admit that he may talk too much, and with too little point, but that as a man he’s “the real article--what you see is what you get.” It’s delivered with dignity enough to crush anyone, and it makes Martin abashed. But it has the effect of making us wary about Martin. His white-hot fury is so vitriolic that his character seems spiteful and elitist, and not enough is done to lay the groundwork for the complete change of heart that’s needed before the film’s mushy conclusion.

As a director, Hughes has to learn to trust us more. He opens with a lovely, witty silent scene in Martin’s ad agency, everyone waiting for Chairman William Windom to finish studying a proposed ad campaign. Martin sneaks a look at his plane tickets, but Hughes doesn’t have faith that we are smart enough to have noticed this bit of business. He throws in another insert of the schedule, with the departure time haloed in light.

In the same way, after Martin has had his unfortunate first meeting with Candy and then spots him at the airport, Hughes reminds us with a quick flashback to Candy’s face. We knew, we knew--a little credit, please. The same holds true of the intensely irritating musical score, credited to Ira Newborn, which underlines every visual moment as though they thought we would miss something.

There are also many scenes in which everyone living outside a major metropolitan area is portrayed as slack-jawed, overweight or a mouth breather, probably inbred and given to miniature marshmallow salads. It’s a pretty hateful point of view, but it’s a Hughes article of faith and a lot of people laugh right along with him. (The film’s R rating is for one extended scene of obscene language, of the “Scarface” variety.)

There is no denying the craft of either Martin or Candy, however, and since they are the film, it will undoubtedly find its audience faster than any one of us can get from New York to Chicago.

‘PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES” A Paramount release. Executive producers Michael Chinich, Neil Machlis. Produced, directed, written by John Hughes. Camera Don Peterman. Editor Paul Hirsch. Music Ira Newborn. Production design John W. Corso. Art direction Harold Michelson. Set design Louis Mann. Set decoration Jane Bogart, Linda Spheeris. Costumes April Ferry. Sound James Alexander. With Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robbins, Larry Hankin, Kevin Bacon.

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (younger than 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).


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