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Blu-Ray Review: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

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At the end of this past August I was scheduled to go on a trip with my family.  This vacation had been in the works for more than six months.   It required coordinating work schedules, children’s schedules, and availability at our destination.  It was to be awesome.   And then, Hurricane Irene sauntered up the East Coast, throwing our plans into turmoil.  For 2 hours it appeared as though our vacation wasn’t going to happen, even when we were at the airport with 30 minutes until the flight (still on time) was scheduled to take off, things conspired to call our trip into question. 

While the trip happened, the experience leading up to it is the sort of thing to which we all can relate which is perhaps why films depicting comedic travel misadventures have a long and distinguished lineage that begins well before the legendary Vacation (perhaps the easiest film in the sub-genre to identify).  But, they don’t stop at Vacation either, and one of the absolute best examples in the sub-genre appeared a mere four years after the Chevy Chase classic. 

Written and directed by John Hughes (who also happened to write Vacation), Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a non-stop riot featuring Steve Martin and John Candy at their utter best.  Martin is Neal Page, a man who simply wants to get back to Chicago from a business trip in New York so that he can spend Thanksgiving with his family.   Page’s misadventures begin on his way to the airport with his inability to get a cab, continue through his flight being delayed and eventually diverted, and to the ridiculous machinations he must go through in order to actually finally make it home.  Candy is Del Griffith, the chatterbox you never want to sit next to—ever—on an airplane.  Griffith is the bad penny that Page who keeps turning up and who may (or may not) be able to get Page home in time for the holiday.

Hughes’ script puts Griffith and Page in one ridiculous circumstance after the next as Page’s fuse gets shorter and shorter and shorter.  In perhaps the funniest scene in the movie, Page—never shouting, never yelling, always in control—repeatedly curses at a rental car agent (played by the always funny Edie McClurg) after he is forced to walk back from the rental car lot when there is no car in the space for him.  He is, at that moment, one bad circumstance away from losing it for all time.

As with many films that work brilliantly, the situation in which Page finds himself is one in which we have, or could but for a small twist of fate, wind up ourselves.  We have never sat quite next to Del Griffith on a plane, but we’ve sat with someone close to being that annoying.  We may never have had to take a half-dozen modes of transportation after the prior one breaks down to get somewhere important, but there have been moments when it’s felt like it.  Add to that the pitch perfect performances by Martin, Candy, and various stars in cameo roles (including Michael McKean and Kevin Bacon) and you have a recipe for success.  Hughes even manages to find a way to redeem both Griffith (for his obnoxiousness) and Page (for his cruelty) in the audience’s eyes by the end of the film. 

From the opening scene in the film in which Page needs a meeting to end until the final one where he reunites with his family, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one funny moment after the next.  As Mr. Blanding Builds his Dream House and The Money Pit are to home renovations, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is to travel.  It is everyone’s nightmare scenario done in blindingly great comedic fashion.

The new Blu-ray release of the film features decent, though not spectacular, visuals and audio.  There certainly is no dirt or scratches to ruin the visuals, but there is at times a certain softness to the image which one isn’t sure of being directorial intent (age, perhaps, is the most likely culprit).  The detail certainly isn’t as great as one would like and when a scene is dark, too much is lost.  The audio track is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.  It doesn’t feature the most lively of surrounds, but they do spark to life on occasion, helping place the viewer in the action.  The soundtrack is well-mixed, with music, dialogue, and effects adjusted so that the words are crisp and clear without being overpowered by the other elements.  The truth is that visually and auditorially the release feels like this is a not-terribly-expensive 1980s comedy, one shot with a relatively muted palette, being thrown onto Blu-ray without being given as much shine as a higher-budget, visually more striking, and/or more respected cinematically, film.

About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.