When Second City Television star John Candy, one of the
of all our jolly fat men, died in March of 1994, I felt we lost a
national treasure (on loan from Canada, of course). To steal
phrase from Cecilia Ager, John Candy was never in a movie as wonderful
as he was. And, since circumstances dictate that he never
be, I guess we'll have to be satisfied with films like PLANES, TRAINS
AND AUTOMOBILES and UNCLE BUCK. John Hughes' first "adult"
after a string of good teen comedies, PT&A concerns Neal Page
(Steve Martin), a marketing executive, who tries to get home from New
York to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving, finds his flight grounded in
Kansas, and winds up on a long and winding road trip with a sweet but
obnoxious blabbermouth, shower curtain ring salesman Del. W. Griffith
The comedy is never as funny as it could be, but there are moments of high hilarity and the film keeps you chuckling quietly throughout, with many quotable lines ("Her first baby come out sideways, and she didn't scream or nuthin'") and pratfalls. It is not the gags that keep me coming back to PT&A every few years, but the work of two of the finest comic actors of the 1980s. Steve Martin has had better showcases, but here he holds back, for the most part, a slow-burning Edgar Kennedy to Candy's one-man Laurel and Hardy. His obsessive self-control makes his occasional outbursts all the more funny. Candy himself has never been more sympathetic in a movie, toning down his shtick so that a real person emerges behind his incessant babbling and chuckling. These two actors play uptight Neal and chatterbox Del not as caricatures but as flesh and blood people you could meet in any diner or bus depot in America, and that brings a richness to many scenes. Early on, after one humiliation too many, Martin rips into Candy with a hilarious tirade about how boring he is ("Here's an idea: when you tell one of your little stories... have a point!"). But while we are laughing at Martin, we are also aching for Candy, who stands there and takes it, choking back tears. We feel for Del because all he has done is tried to help a stranger get home for the holidays, but we also sympathize with Neal's anger because, despite the good intentions, Del has brought Neal nothing but misfortune and embarrassment. Yet after every squabble, mishap and near-death experience, the two men find themselves together once again, in some new vehicle, inching ever closer to Chicago. Despite the stumbles and spats, there is a growing sense of real friendship, the kind that will always rise above disaster - much like Stan and Ollie, who could have easily played this same story in the thirties.
PT&A actually works better the second time around, when knowledge of the bittersweet ending allows you to see Candy's performance, and a wonderful performance it is, in an entirely new light. Not Hughes' funniest comedy, but certainly one of his best all-around films, which also stands out as a highlight in the careers of both comics. - JB