Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. In real life, this is not the kind of thing you want to hear. It is, however, a great way to create comedy and generate laughs. Just put a fictional character in a series of situations where things only go wrong, then watch the character’s reaction to each event and the change in mannerisms over time. You can do this with lots of different contexts. For example, you can have the character endure endless frustrations with traveling, as with the 1987 comedy movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Here, Steve Martin plays a businessman named Neal Page. He has to leave work to catch a flight from New York to Chicago in time to be with his family for Thanksgiving. However, starting from the first scene where Neal’s boss is wasting time reviewing magazine cover designs while forcing his employees to sit and wait for him to finish, Neal goes through a series of frustrating moments. It is not long before Neal encounters a stranger he ends up getting stuck with for the whole trip: John Candy as a shower curtain ring salesman named Del Griffith. Let me say right now that having Steve Martin and John Candy together here is brilliant, because they’re both funny actors.
OK, back to the plot. Murphy’s Law isn’t just active here; it’s taken to the extreme. The nonstop travel frustrations in this movie include flight delays, vehicle breakdowns, uncomfortable hitchhikes, an idiotic rental car service, crummy motel rooms, losing methods of payment, a police traffic stop, competition for available taxi cabs, and the annoyances of a stranger who becomes an unexpected travel companion. What should be a smooth direct flight from New York to Chicago ends up being a bumpy trip from New York to Wichita, Kansas, that proceeds east to Jefferson City and St. Louis in Missouri before going north through Illinois all the way to Chicago. If you think your worst travel experience was bad, just watch this movie to see how much worse it could’ve been.
Steve Martin is funny as a guy who doesn’t fully hide his travel angst, but tries hard to keep it in check. He looks as if he could tolerate all of the constant misfortune and make it home without blowing steam. But this is Steve Martin we’re talking about. There has to be at least one hilarious moment with this guy. Sure enough, this movie has it. Sometime in the second half of the movie, he finally explodes and launches a series of F-bombs at one person in a desperate effort to quickly move forward on his journey. Steve Martin looks pretty mean in this scene, yet he’s so funny here because he plays it straight. Plus, you get a chance to identify with his frustrations before this big moment.
As for John Candy, his character is also interesting. You might assume that, in this movie, he is a disgusting obnoxious slob who only thinks of himself. In fact, he’s more of a humble and overly friendly man who is mildly annoying because he really is more aware of other people than himself. That’s not to say his flaws are few. His major scene involves carelessness on the road that ultimately results in not one but two disastrous moments for him and Steve Martin. Still, it’s worth waiting for the end of the movie, because John Candy’s character finally comes out as a lovable guy you just want to hug.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a simple yet delightful comedy. It just goes to show that you can find humor in pretty much any life situation, so you can make a comedy movie out of pretty much anything. I’m amazed that not many other comedies center on travel frustrations, as it’s something many people can relate to. I give writer and director John Hughes credit for taking on this project. The next time I encounter major hurdles while traveling, I’ll just think of this movie, because it can remind me to laugh about my trip once I make it home.