John Hughes Skewered Cynicism in ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’

We look back at Planes, Trains & Automobiles on its thirtieth anniversary and how John Hughes’ masterpiece brilliantly skewers cynicism and self-righteous indignation.
Neal And Del
By  · Published on November 28th, 2017

We look back at Planes, Trains & Automobiles on its thirtieth anniversary and how John Hughes’ masterpiece brilliantly skewers cynicism and self-righteous indignation.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is my favorite John Hughes film. It’s the best of the films he wrote and directed. This movie deserves to be in the pantheon of all-time great films. It is also the best Thanksgiving movie of all time (followed closely by Blood Rage). Steve Martin and John Candy star as Neal Page and Del Griffith. They are complete opposites whose journeys become inescapably entwined as they struggle to make it home to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Unfortunately for Neal, the world only dumps on him. He can’t catch a break because nobody respects his place in the world. He is, in the basest form, a cynic. Through the course of the film, Hughes masterfully demonstrates the destructiveness of that brand of cynicism.

The holidays are about finding a renewed faith in humanity. Thanksgiving’s role in that is to remind us that we ought to spend more time focused on what we have. Most people lose sight of that. As humans, we seem to be forever interested in what everyone else has. How else do we know if we’re winning life? People lose themselves in success. More directly, people have a real propensity for being self-indulgent assholes. Especially upper-middle-class guys who’ve had everything break their way for most of their life. This movie, scene after scene, lives those whiny moments of extreme cynicism. Cynicism is an atom bomb to the soul, and John Hughes’ masterpiece is here to show us why.

Hughes works his magic in two ways. First, the film is structured to reinforce this message in every scene. The structure tricks us into being complicit with Neal’s rage against the light. Second, authentic, human characters with real emotional weight populate the story. This one surprises the heckfire out of me because the film is pure, slapstick comedy. These two things, combined with phenomenal performances from Martin and Candy, force us to think about all the cynical takes we have in our day-to-day lives.

How does a movie trick you into being complicit? Oh, they have ways of making you emote. Okay, that’s a bit silly. Planes, Trains & Automobiles is structured deliberately. Neal is cynical. He focuses exclusively on how his situation is suddenly bad. Show. Don’t tell. Right? This worldview is the structure of the film. I’ll walk you through an example.

After their flight is diverted to Witchita, Del proactively reserves a hotel room. Meanwhile, Neal flounders. Having bonded on the plane, Del offers to get Neal a room if he’ll pick up the cab fare. The cabbie takes the scenic route as Neal complains about the travel time. When they get to the hotel, they discover they’ll have to share a room with a single bed. Hilarious antics ensue.

Steve Martin Washcloth

Neal showers after Del. The bathroom floor is soaked. All the towels have been used. There’s garbage on the floor. He’s stuck with a solitary washcloth to dry himself off. It’s a masterful bit of physical comedy! Next, they’re in the bed. Neal complains that Del has spilled beer all over his side of the bed. Del makes for a terrible bedmate. He’s rolling around. Reading after lights out. Clearing his sinuses. And, suddenly Neal can’t take it anymore. He jumps up and furiously lays into Del with one of the most brutal rants in cinematic history.

“I could tolerate any insurance seminar. For days I could sit there and listen to them go on and on with a big smile on my face. They’d say, ‘How can you stand it?’ I’d say, ”Cause I’ve been with Del Griffith. I can take ANYTHING.’ You know what they’d say? They’d say, ‘I know what you mean. The shower curtain ring guy. Woah.’ It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. I expect you have a little string on your chest, you know, that I pull out and have to snap back. Except I wouldn’t pull it out and snap it back – you would.” – Neal Page

The whole structure of this sequence of events has exclusively shown Neal’s experience. The cabbie that screwed them. The difficult check-in process. Drying off in a disgusting bathroom. Sleeping in a cigarette smoke-filled room, on a puddle of beer, next to a fidgeter. He can’t handle it. I tracked right along with his rage. After all, we’ve just been shown his terrible travel experience. Of course, he’s mad. However, somewhere in that rant it stops being funny. You realize how bitterly cruel Neal is being to Del.

“You want to hurt me? Go right ahead, if it makes you feel better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right. I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you. But, I don’t like to hurt peoples feelings. Well, you think what you want about me. I’m not changing. I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. Because I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.” Del Griffith

If you didn’t realize it during the rant, you sure did with that rebuttal. Del was shown as a buffoonish interloper. In that moment, Hughes shows you his full humanity. It encourages you to reconsider what you’ve been presented with for the past half hour. Why did Neal call his wife? He literally knew nothing about his situation other than his present location. Why does he complain about the cab ride? He basically asks Del, who is not driving, if they’re there yet. That is, without a doubt, the inquiry of a child.

The shower scene is comedy gold. You know what, though? Neal walked into that bathroom in that condition. He undressed and got into the shower with the bathroom already destroyed. The complaint about the bed? If somebody spills beer in a communal bed, why on earth would you ever lie down in their mess? At that moment, we have to realize that maybe a movie focused on Neal’s perspective isn’t the most reliable. None of his choices make any sense.

The whole construction of the movie, up to that moment, is designed to blindside you with Del’s humanity. It’s an impressive bit of filmmaking. Martin and Candy have to play their roles perfectly up to that moment. Hughes has to be fully cognizant of his characters’ motivations and the proclivities of his audience. The film walks the razor’s edge on humor. Too little, and he’ll strip the power of the exchange. Too much, and he’ll render them too ridiculous to matter.

It isn’t just a magic trick for your amusement. Hughes is aggressively taking on the cynicism of the successful man. Cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you go around expecting the world to take advantage of you, you will engineer suffering for yourself. It’s a promise to yourself to be miserable. Who schedules a rush hour flight to conclude a full, regular day of nine to five work? For that matter, did the subway not exist in 1987? Does your trip time matter to you? Have that conversation with the cabbie before you’ve been on the side roads. If I were sharing a room and found the bathroom in that state, anger or not, I’d go find some clean towels before I got in the shower. Why agree to lay in the beer puddle? If it isn’t fine, don’t say it is. Speak your mind. Advocate for yourself. These are simple, but important things.

We spend the rest of the movie aware of Neal’s cynical perspective, but Neal has yet to truly learn his lesson. He’s still reactive. All things considered, I think this is a very sad story. Neal is so unhappy in his life, and he is just awful to the people around him when he’s angry. It’s hard to watch. Hughes sense of humor, and what Candy and Martin bring to their roles, are essential to keeping the viewer engaged. For all its considerable sadness, the scene where Del is driving and gets his arms stuck is some of the best silent comedy. In fact, that whole bit in the car is a pitch-perfect comedy. None of it is a cheat or a step away from their characters or the film’s topic.

The character work in this movie is phenomenal. It is the glue that holds together the bitter structure and that sweet, sweet comedy. Hughes doesn’t go out of his way to give you the backstory on these characters. They are genuine people, and their history is complex. Neal’s marriage is a great example.  When he calls to say he’ll be delayed, the kids dejectedly call it before he shares it. It’s a small exchange, but how would they do that? Only if two very specific things are true. One, he must travel a lot. Two, nearly all of those trips must result in his being home later than he promised. It’s an interesting detail to throw in.

Then, there’s the exchange with his wife, Susan (Laila Robins), once the plane lands in Wichita. She’s very confused. What does Wichita have to do with snow in Chicago? It is my suspicion that she believes Neal is covering up an affair. He’s always bouncing back and forth between Chicago and New York. He’s routinely “delayed.” And now he’s in Wichita, of all places, because of a snowstorm? It would sound mighty suspicious to me over the phone. All of this is told in very brief exchanges and quick cuts to life on the home front.

All signs point to genuine problems in their marriage. If this were something as simple as a delayed flight, I don’t think she’d be too fussed. Family time can wait til Friday. There’s nothing particularly special about the fourth Thursday of November. However, if he’s routinely failing to show up for his family, I could see a serious conversation happening between the two of them prior to this trip. Be home in time for family time, or just have your turkey in New York.

Del has the same clues. In this case, they are literal bread crumbs. He’s a slob. He’s clearly been on the road for years. He hasn’t had to share a space with someone in a long time. He’s quick with a hustle. He excels at making trades and relying on a network of acquaintances to help fix problems. And he carries what appears to be at least an 8X10 of his wife with him at all times. There’s really only one reason all these things would be so.

That is the value of the character work. After the initial hotel set up, the movie continues to show Neal evolve as he painfully lets go of his arrogant, cynical view of the world. He tries and fails. Tries and succeeds. They bond in the final hotel scene. The focus is all on Neal’s movement as a character. Maybe he will use this to be a little smarter about his marriage. And, you’re happy as they finally return to Chicago. Neal warmly parts with Del. He boards the L feeling “maybe a little wiser.” It feels satisfying. That isn’t the end, though.

The emotional climax happens on that train when Neal finally pauses to think. It’s the first time in the movie he actually pro-actively analyzes his situation. And he realizes what we should have realized the whole movie. Del’s wife has passed away, and he’s a traveling salesman because he has no home. Hughes message couldn’t be more clear. Don’t be so proud of yourself for simply not being cynical. There’s more required than that to interact meaningfully with this world.

The realization requires you to reassess everything you’ve seen. Neal has been so stubbornly entrenched in his cynicism. How does it feel to be so god damn right? Even when Neal is wrong, he’s right. However, he’s usually right. Del is a slob. It does suck to get stuck in holiday travel hell. That airline did screw him out of a first-class seat. That car rental place did strand him in the middle of nowhere. He’s not wrong. He’s just pervasively cynical. In other words, he’s just an ungrateful asshole.

We missed something that should have been obvious from the beginning. Del did not have to go to Chicago. He did that expressly because he saw a stranger in need and decided to help him as best he could. It’s why Del is still on the platform when Neal comes back for him. Where was he going to go?

I cry for Del every time. He may be a slob and out of practice sharing a space with another human being, but god damned if he isn’t a saint.

Hughes perfectly takes advantage of our natural, slow drift towards indifference. It’s so easy to be cold. To distance ourselves from the problems of others. The structure of the movie is designed to wallop you twice for the same sin. It’s really an amazing piece of filmmaking. I’ve always loved Ebert’s quote about movies as empathy machines. Hughes executes fully on that premise. His big idea? From time to time, we need to be reminded to connect with our fellow humans. Otherwise, we wind up like Neal Page. Ungrateful and wallowing in our anger. There is genuine sadness in the world. Good people lose so much and are broken by it. Why break ourselves?

This holiday season, love your loved ones. Be present. Make connections. Be thankful for what you’ve got. Or, you’re fucked.

Related Topics: ,

Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.