Boy, is this a tricky one to review. I saw this movie for my first time this past Thanksgiving night on Netflix, and I had no idea it was a Thanksgiving movie until I started watching! I love coincidences like that, but in movies, coincidences have to be handled very carefully (segue, segue, segue). Planes, Trains, and Automobiles does a remarkable job at playing up the absurdities of its continuous coincidences, and making the disastrous circumstances as funny as possible. From a writing standpoint, it is a very well-built film, which is uncommon for a movie that is essentially a series of things going awry. The acting from Steve Martin and John Candy, who were on top of their game in this film, is perfect. The film also has some great attention to detail, cool shots, fun cameos, and a very nice ending.
The problem that I have with it, however, is that it requires laughing at the suffering of the protagonist. One could argue that laughing at the pain of others is the essence of comedy, but as Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” In other words, if something bad happens to you, it’s tragic from your perspective, but funny from mine. Similarly, in television, film, and other media, it is easier to laugh at the suffering of those with whom we do not identify. Since this movie made me empathize with the main characters, it was difficult for me to laugh when they were suffering because I “felt their pain.” So, I found the movie kind of uncomfortable.
Regardless, I am impressed with the film and its ability to take a rather common kind of comedy story, and make a special one of a very high caliber. It’s just what one would expect from John Hughes.