HomeEntertainmentTVCould Planes, Trains & Automobiles still work today?

Could Planes, Trains & Automobiles still work today?

Steve Martin and John Candy in planes, trains and cars (Image: Paramount Pictures)

Enter Steve Martin and John Candy Planes, trains and cars (Image: Paramount Pictures)
Graphic: Libby McGuire

This year marks 35 years since what is widely regarded as the greatest Thanksgiving movie of all time—Planes, trains and cars. Paramount marks the occasion with a new remastered 4K release featuring over an hour of deleted scenes from the original film (which initially aired on a good three hours). The two-hander starring Steve Martin and John Candy as a pair of unlikely traveling companions trying to get home for Thanksgiving has stood the test of time when it comes to its brilliant tempo comedy beats, but with each passing year it gets a little more dated. With a possibly remake in the works (or maybe not, given Will Smith’s image isn’t what it was in 2020 when the project was announced – imagine how that rental car meltdown would play out now) we had to wonder how much of Neal and Neal’s disastrous journey Del today could be avoided with all the innovations at our fingertips.

In an age of internet-enabled smartphones, digital wallets, and apps like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, there are so many solutions that make travel easier than there were in 1987. We even have virtual meeting software that makes travel less necessary, so Steve Martin’s character might not even have had to be in New York to present a physical ad campaign to that indecisive client. Without that business trip two days before Thanksgiving, there’s no movie, but where else would it have gotten stuck along the way? Let’s take it one step at a time.

Airplanes

Planes, Trains and Cars (9/10) Movie CLIP – My Dogs Bark (1987) HD

The first sign that we live in a completely different era is the fact that one of the first things Neal (Martin) does is look at his watch. Except it is a watch from the 1980s, the time is also remarkable. It’s a quarter to five and he has a six hour flight. The fact that he still expects to make it when he leaves the meeting shows how far we’ve come, and not necessarily in the right direction. This is probably the only case where it was easier back then. Neal is more concerned about the delay in finding a cab than getting stuck in a line for airport security (he actually got beaten to an available cab by Kevin Bacon in a memorable cameo). With no Uber or Lyft service, he has to pay a businessman cash for his taxi, then loses it to Del (Candy) in the opposite of a meet-cute.

Neal arrives at the airport at 5:58, thinking he can still board if he hurry. There’s no waiting time to go through security, no ID or ticket checkpoints (the TSA didn’t exist yet), so he sails through (we don’t really see this, but the timing suggests only a few minutes between arrival at the airport and his reach port). We’ll never know if he would have actually made the original flight because by the time he gets to his gate, it’s delayed.

When Neal finally gets on board with his paper ticket he discovers that he has been given a seat on the bus despite paying for first class. Could that now happen without the passenger knowing before boarding the plane? Neal and Del meet for a third time (after an awkward meeting at the airport) as seatmates, which reinforces the growing animosity between them. Their forced landing in Wichita, due to a snow storm in Chicago, is sadly something that still plagues travelers today. The aftermath, however, is a different story.

Trains

Those are not pillows! – Planes, Trains and Cars (10/10) Movie CLIP (1987) HD

What’s the first thing you would do if you had to land unexpectedly in a random city and maybe have to stay overnight? Grab your phone and go find a hotel room, right? And failing that, you can turn to Airbnb or VRBO or a travel site for more options. What you don’t have to do is wait in a long line at a phone booth and risk having all the local rooms gone by the time you get to the front. That’s what happens to Neal, and it’s the leverage Del uses to stick with him a little longer. If Neal had any other options, he would wait out the storm and get on another plane the next day. And that would be the end of the movie.

However, he is out of options, so he goes to the Braidwood Inn with Del. Here’s another example where a rideshare app would come in handy. They have to settle for the 1980s equivalent, Doobby’s Taxiola, a rogue taxi with a shady driver who insists on taking the “scenic route” in the middle of the night. Both men hand over their Diners Cards (which still exist!) to the hotel receptionist who calls them using a manual carbon credit card machine and switches them on return. This could probably still happen today, but the error would be apparent much sooner.

Despite not specifying a smoking room (it wasn’t required back then), Del smokes in the room. Don’t try to imagine what it must have smelled like in there; it’s not a fun exercise. That night, while the boys are asleep, a teen breaks into their room and robs them (fun fact: in a deleted scene, the same teen delivers a pizza to the room earlier in the night and Del tips him off, so this is his revenge). If the door had an electronic card reader, as most hotel rooms have now, it wouldn’t have been so easy for the intruder to get in. They would still have had their money the next morning and one less thing to fight about.

A plane to Chicago still doesn’t look good (a weather app would take the guesswork out of it), so the next stage of the journey is taking a train. They get to Jefferson City before the train breaks down and they have to walk to a bus station and catch a bus to St. Louis. Again, a Google search, a call to the credit card company, and a rideshare would all take care of this and Neal would be home by Thanksgiving. End movie.

cars

AF***ing Car – Planes, Trains & Automobiles (6/10) Film CLIP (1987) HD

With no money for more tickets, Del goes into vendor mode and makes some money selling shower curtain rings (which are also now mostly obsolete, by the way), he helps Neal, and after sharing a meal at a St. Louis restaurant, they go their separate ways again. We might as well take this opportunity to note how many phone booths Neal uses to call home in this movie. His wife has no idea where he is, so she can’t reach him directly. She can only wait for him to call her with his travel updates as Thanksgiving approaches. It’s inscrutable.

Neal’s next travel mishap is being dropped off in a rental car parking lot with a set of keys to a car that isn’t there. The bus drops him off and…just leave him there. There is no other airport shuttle on the way. He’s completely stuck. Again. This last straw leads to the famous “damn” tirade aimed at Edie McClurg as a car rental agent, after he had to walk through the snow on a highway and the airport runway to get there. The punchline is that he’s the one who got “fucked” for losing his paper lease. It would be a piece of cake to look up these days, if he didn’t already have it on his phone, but Neal isn’t that lucky

Del comes to his rescue again with a rental car that he was somehow able to get with Neal’s Diners Club card. He lights a cigarette just like in the room, and we bet he didn’t have to ask for a car you could smoke in. easily avoided by using a navigation app. However, that wouldn’t have helped when the car caught fire.

The last hotel they spend the night in together won’t take their toasted credit cards (one more phone call and this problem could have been solved too), so Neal trades in his fancy watch to get a room. On their last leg, they are stopped by a state agent (played by Michael McKean) who confiscates their burned-out car. According to McKean, there was a cutscene where he tells them they overshot Chicago by about a hundred miles (which a navigation app would have told them too). Finally, Del comes through with another primitive rideshare – a three-hour ride in the back of a cheese truck to downtown Chicago.

They seem to be going their separate ways again, and if Del Neal had asked for his email address instead of his home address, he might have given it to him. Del would definitely have found him on social media and followed every account. But that would have taken away from the feeling of hesitant goodbye that makes this scene so heartwarming. If Neal hadn’t put the pieces together on the train and gone back, chances are they never would have seen each other again. We’re glad he does, because it makes for a perfect ending.

A smart writer could still make it Planes, trains and cars work in the present day with a few adjustments. For example, if they took their smartphones out of the game early, say because of damage or theft or whatever, the modern versions of Neal and Del would be in a position pretty close to where they were in 1987. The question is not whether it can be done, but whether it should be without John Hughes around to at least consult on the project. His gifts for characterization and storytelling – not to mention Martin and Candy’s performances – made the original more righteous than a silly comedy of errors. The characters have stayed with us for so long because they are fully realized, flawed human beings who get under each other’s skin and then go deeper to find the beating heart within. That’s why we return to this movie year after year and why it will never go out of date.

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