By the time the year 1987 rolled around, the now-legendary (and late) filmmaker John Hughes was pretty much on top of the cinematic world, having previously brought us four classic features that he both wrote and directed in just two years: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off — to say nothing of the features he served as writer and executive producer for. But when he put pen to paper on what was to become the holiday-themed Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Hughes decided to abandon the teeny-bopper formula he helped to mold and focus on the complex world of adults.
Adults, mind you, without a shred of luck in the whole damn universe. But when the universe sees fit to give us the dynamic duo of Steve Martin and John Candy, there are very few life forms within the cosmos that would dare complain. Here, Martin plays Neal Page — an easily-upset advertising executive from Chicago who seemingly loses all of his luck once he tries to leave New York City to make it back home in time to spend Thanksgiving with his family. First, an athletic young fellow (Kevin Bacon, in a cameo) steals the last free cab — a taxi that would surely have been Neal's had he not tripped on a large trunk carelessly left out on the street.
Said trunk, as it turns out, belongs to a jolly giant named Del Griffith (Candy) — a traveling shower curtain ring salesman (I'm sure such people exist) who has an incredibly optimistic look at life, especially considering all of Neal's bad luck seems to be flung in Del's direction like what might happen were one to incur the wrath of an army of cheeky monkeys. The patronage of Lady Misfortune becomes stronger one Neal and Del inevitably wind up traveling cross-country together — as the odd pairing is besieged by thieves in the night, a rental car that winds up getting torched, having to sleep in the same bed ("No, Ray!" [private joke, kids]), and another rental car that just isn't there — which results in one of the most memorable meltdowns ever committed to celluloid, pulled-off as only the good Mr. Martin could.
But Steve Martin is not the only one giving his all here. The late great John Candy also delivers a powerful performance as the happy-go-lucky but secretly tortured salesman who yearns for nothing more than a little friendship in the world. Ultimately, Hughes bestows an appropriately exultant finale upon both characters and viewers alike. The lesson learned: everything pretty much happens for a reason. And, in this instance, that reason is cinematic gold. Though most of the movie's runtime is devoted to its two incredible stars, special note should always be given to supporting performers Edie McClurg (as one strong-willed rental car agent), the always-wonderful Michael McKean (as a bewildered state trooper), and bit parts by Ben Stein and an uncredited William Windom.