Confession time: Despite coming of age in the ’80s and landing in the heart of the target audience for John Hughes’ teen comedies, I never identified with the teenage characters in them — or aspired to be like them, really. Part of this has to do with being gay in the suburbs, an environment where “out and proud” wasn’t even remotely an option and conformity felt like a straitjacket. As much as I was an academically adept social misfit, though, I still couldn’t see myself in the characters played by Hughes’ go-to geek, Anthony Michael Hall. (When Hall subsequently bulked up, it became clear he’d secretly been a jock in disguise all along.) The closest I ever came to feeling some kinship with one of Hughes’ youthful creations was tightly wound worry wart Cameron Frye in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and he’s about as asexual as they come.
This is not to suggest I felt compelled to throw in my lot with the parents and other authority figures in Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, or Ferris Bueller, since they ran the gamut from totally clueless to wary but still capable of being bamboozled by people who aren’t old enough to vote. In order to begin seeing the adults in Hughes’ work as human beings in their own right, it’s necessary to look past the quartet of films that made his reputation to the only one on his CV headlined by two middle-aged men, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, which recently marked its 30th anniversary with the requisite Blu-ray upgrade.
With no teenagers in sight, the audience for PT&A is asked to identify with Steve Martin’s Neal Page, a marketing man on business in New York City who just wants to fly to his tastefully appointed home in the Chicago suburbs to be with his family for Thanksgiving. Neither Hughes nor Martin make it easy for the viewer to completely align themselves with Neal, though, since he’s a prickly customer, quick to lob cutting remarks instead of adopting a conciliatory tone. Then again, he is traveling around the holidays, which was stressful even before the TSA stepped in to make air travel more unpleasant, so his testiness with the unhelpful customer service reps he encounters is understandable.
It’s even possible to share Neal’s initial disdain for John Candy’s aggressively upbeat shower-ring salesman Del Griffith, who unwittingly trips him up right at the start of his journey. As much of an over-sharer as Del turns out to be, though, he’s also a good man to have in your corner when the chips are down, a point of view Neal is slow to come around to. No matter what fate throws at them — and Hughes makes sure fate has a lot of ammo — Del has a fix for both of them that works out better than what Neal comes up with on his own.
A seasoned traveler who all but lives on the road, Del accurately predicts they won’t be landing at O’Hare, which has been snowed in, and upon their arrival in Wichita correctly surmises their flight will be canceled and arranges accommodations for the night. When the train they board the next day breaks down near Jefferson City, Del knows their best option to get to St. Louis is by bus, even as he warns Neal his “mood’s probably not going to improve much.” When Neal’s rental car turns out to be missing, Del offers to share his. And when it’s time to spend another night in a motel, it’s Del who breaks out the array of snacks and miniature liquor bottles. Then, when his burnt-out husk of a rental car is impounded on the final leg of their journey, Del gets them a lift in the back of the tractor trailer that delivers them to Chicago and an El station that can finally get Neal home.
Utilizing the sturdy road-trip format that served him in good stead in his screenplay for National Lampoon’s Vacation four years earlier, Hughes makes getting from Wichita to Chicago by land seem like a challenge on the order of the return of Odysseus to Ithaca. Along the way, our heroes encounter several familiar faces from Hughes’ films, both past and future, starting with Lyman Ward (Ferris Bueller’s oblivious father) as Neal’s fellow marketing executive who has a more laid-back attitude about holiday travel. Also from Ferris, erstwhile economics teacher Ben Stein pops up as the airline representative who laconically announces the flight cancellation that throws Neal’s already-precarious plans into a tailspin, and Edie McClurg is the bubbly rental-car clerk who is on the receiving end of his profanity-laden rant when he reaches the end of his tether. (The number of times Neal spits the F-word at Ed Rooney’s secretary in the space of one minute: 18.) And looking ahead to his next film, the semi-autobiographical She’s Having a Baby, Hughes cast Kevin Bacon in a wordless cameo as the eagle-eyed New Yorker who beats Neal to a taxi, the first form of transportation denied him.
The heart of the picture, however, is the interplay between Neal and Del as they bounce off and blow up at each other. As heated as things sometimes get between them, there’s always a reconciliation just around the corner. Their burgeoning camaraderie is put to the test their first night together, though, when they have to share a room that only has one bed. The prospect of sleeping side-by-side so alarms them they try to avoid the topic, but the elephant in the room rears its trunk when Del innocently asks, “You wanna take a shower?” and Neal instantly cries out “No!”
This moment of panic subsides, replaced by annoyance as Neal finds out how much of a slob his unwelcome traveling companion is, but it has its sequel the following morning when — in what is arguably the film’s most famous scene — he wakes up in Del’s arms and they progressively find out how intertwined they are. “Why did you kiss my ear?” Neal groggily asks. “Why are you holding my hand?” Del shoots back, alarmed. “Where’s your other hand?” Neal counters, narrowing his eyes. “Between two pillows,” Del replies. Now, when I was younger, I had no problem with the 15-second freak-out that follows Neal’s “Those aren’t pillows!” line, and I’m not particularly troubled by it today. If these guys are so insecure in their masculinity that they have to assert it by invoking football after accidentally being physically intimate with each other, then the joke’s on them, not the gays they’re desperate not to be mistaken for.
Then again, by the time they’re trying to check into a motel the next night, they’ve been through so much together that when Neal pleads with the desk clerk, “Have mercy. I’ve been wearing the same underwear since Tuesday,” and Del chimes in with “I can vouch for that,” neither of them bats an eye or is remotely worried about what this stranger might think of them. That’s progress.
As dated as it sometimes is (the score is a huge tell), Planes, Trains & Automobiles remains the Hughes-directed film that holds up best for me. (Confession #2: I’ve never seen Curly Sue. Maybe it’s his masterpiece. I doubt I’ll ever know.) Like Neal Page, I’ll be hitting the road to spend Thanksgiving with my family, but unlike him, I don’t even consider flying anywhere unless it’s an emergency. And as much I like to think I’m as generous and gregarious as Del Griffith (without sharing his less-salutary qualities), I see more of myself in the short-tempered Neal, who more often than not is his own worst enemy. Having worked in customer service, though, I know better than to harangue the employees on the front lines of monolithic, bottom-line-oriented corporations, especially around the holidays. Remember, travelers. They’d probably rather be home with their families, too.
Craig J. Clark lives in Bloomington, Ind., can say the F-word way more than 18 times in a minute.