PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES (25th Anniversary) – Blu-ray review

“Those aren’t pillows!”

After writing, directing, and producing a string of comedy hits about teenagers, John Hughes (“Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Weird Science”) turned his attention to a movie about adults (as a kind of transition before turning to comedies about children in his later career).  In 1987 he got Steve Martin and John Candy involved in the comedic hazards of cross-country travel in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.”  The results were typically Hughes:  funny, zany, silly, a little bit dull and annoying, and, eventually, a whole lot sentimental.

I’ve talked to any number of people about the movie over the past few decades, most of whom have loved it.  But there are also those viewers for whom the movie is a major irritation, the movie’s characters grating on their nerves.  Take your pick.  In any case, Paramount now make the movie available for the second time on Blu-ray disc, this time in honor of its twenty-fifth anniversary and no longer a Best Buy exclusive.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, the film stars Steve Martin as Neal Page, an uptight marketing executive who’s been out of town a few days for an important business presentation; now he wants only to fly home as quickly as possible to be with his family for Thanksgiving.  However, a mix-up in tickets and a severe snowstorm strand him in Wichita, Kansas, where he continues to meet up with a total stranger, a well-meaning but irritating and unwanted fellow traveler, Del Griffith, played by John Candy.  Del is a salesman for shower-curtain rings and, in his own words, “an annoying blabbermouth.”  He’s a bighearted, lovable lug, a persona Candy would pursue throughout his relatively short movie career.  Anyway, Neal can’t shake him (“Stick with me”), and together they get into a series of sometimes humorous, sometimes peevish mishaps.

Stuck in Wichita, they get a room together in a cheap motel Del recommends, but they not only have to share the room, they have to share a water bed together, with predictable results.

Del never stops making noise:  talking, cracking his knuckles, clearing his sinuses.  The pair make an obvious take-off on “The Odd Couple.”  Del gets on Neal’s nerves from the moment they meet.  “It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll!”

There are some big laughs in the story among some frivolous gags and some decidedly flat ones.  A thief steals all their money in the motel room.  Not funny but necessary for later plot developments.  With the airports snowed in and flights backed up, the fellows decide to take a train, which inevitably breaks down.  Again, not funny, but it does land them in hostile territory:  farmland.  Next, they try the bus, where they continue to bicker and argue, Del leading the passengers in a goofy sing-along.  After that, it’s a rental car, gone missing.  Then another car, this one rented by Del.  Letting Del drive at night in a snow storm while singing to the radio and smoking a cigarette is an obvious recipe for disaster.  One catastrophe follows another.

Neal says Del is “the biggest pain in the butt that ever came down the pike,” and one can hardly disagree with him.  Yet, after the whole raucous journey, Hughes, who wrote, directed, and produced this one, ends it on a note viewers over the years have found either sweet and touching or pathetically manipulative.  It’s that kind of movie.

Trivia note:  The cover art and all of the accompanying materials for the movie list the title as “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” with the word “and” spelled out.  However, the movie’s opening title uses an “&” sign, which I have followed in this review.

Also, look for cameo appearances by several well-known faces, like Kevin Bacon as a man racing Neal for a cab, Ben Stein as an airport flight announcer, and Edie McClurg as a rental-car agent.

Except for a string of profanities at one point, which earns the film an R rating, there are no serious gross-out jokes involved.

For this second Blu-ray release, the folks at Paramount use the same dual-layer BD50 and MPEG-4/AVC encode they did last time for the transfer.  In other words, it’s exactly the same disc.  The restored picture reduces the film’s original 1.85:1 ratio to 1.78:1 to fit a widescreen TV, and the image is quite clean, sharp, bright, vivid, and well focused.  While there is a little natural print grain here and there, which we should expect, there is almost no sign of age or noise anywhere, even in dimmer, indoor scenes.  Skin tones look as natural as one could want, with more-than-adequate black levels to set off the colors.  In short, the PQ looks quite fine.

The Blu-ray disc uses lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 for the soundtrack, which may seem like overkill for a film that is probably 99% dialogue.  However, it does what is probably a near-perfect job in reproducing the sonics.  The sound is quite clear and reasonably dynamic, with a wide stereo spread making up for any lack of surround activity, which is indeed sparse.  So the front-center channel takes the brunt of the load, with speech rendered smoothly and realistically.

The first item on the Blu-ray disc is a sixteen-minute, making-of featurette, “Getting There Is Half the Fun:  The Story of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”  Following that is a two-part documentary in high def, “John Hughes: Life Moves Pretty Fast,” which includes “The Voice of a Generation,” twenty-seven minutes, and “Heartbreak and Triumph: The Legacy of John Hughes,” twenty-six minutes.  Together, they provide a fascinating glimpse into the writing, producing, and directing career of the late filmmaker.  Then, there is “John Hughes for Adults,” four minutes; “A Tribute to John Candy,” three minutes; and a deleted scene in high def, “Airplane Food,” three minutes.

The extras conclude with twenty-seven scene selections; bookmarks; a flimsy Eco-case; English, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.  The disc comes housed in a flimsy BD Eco-case, the only difference from the previous Blu-ray packaging being the lack of a slipcover with a holographic picture on the front.

Parting Thoughts:
In 2010 director Todd Phillips pretty much remade “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” this time calling it “Due Date,” with Robert Downey, Jr. in the Steve Martin role and Zach Galifianakis in the John Candy part.  The newer film was more mean-spirited than the earlier one and Galifianakis’s role less sympathetic than Candy’s.  Filmmakers should leave some things alone, even when they’re as uneven as they are here.

To conclude, let me remind you as I said in the beginning that Paramount have now released the Blu-ray edition of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” more widely; while you can still buy it at Best Buy, it is no longer a Best Buy exclusive.