Since it’s my habit to interpret any piece of art that enters my field of vision as a trans metaphor, it won’t surprise you to learn that upon beginning my first-ever watch of the John Hughes “classic” Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I was fully expecting to for it to be Planes, Trans and Automobiles.
Reader, I was bitterly disappointed.
For years people have been telling me to watch this movie. “It’s a Thanksgiving classic,” they said. “It’s a love story between two men,” they said. “It’s Steve Martin and John Candy at their best,” they said.
Let me relay to you the plot of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Steve Martin is a harried white-collar jerk trying to get from New York (where he’s on a work trip) back to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving with his family. Because holiday travel firmly sits within the 8th rung of Dante’s hell, this is not an easy journey to make. His cab to the airport gets stolen by a jovial salesman (John Candy) resulting in a missed flight that causes the two men (who for whatever reason decide to make the journey back together) to take all manner of shady transportation—including a crowded bus, a random man’s truck, and a burnt rental car—to get back in time for the holiday.
On the way, the two men share a hotel room. Steve Martin accidentally dries his face with John Candy’s underwear. John Candy strips their hotel bathroom of its shower curtain and sells the plastic rings to unsuspecting citizens to pay for their passage back. At one point, Candy and Martin wake up spooning. Straight panic ensues. “Where’s your other hand,” Martin asks nervously. “Between two pillows,” Candy replies. “Those aren’t PILLOWS!” Martin screams as both men leap out of the bed, terrified by a moment of shared intimacy.
Now I know what you’re thinking: it’s a John Hughes movie. How much can we really expect in the way of true male intimacy and emotional honesty? Well, quite frankly, a lot. We all remember the central relationship at the heart of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: not the romantic relationship between Sloane and Ferris, but Ferris’s friendship with his deeply depressed friend Cameron. In that film, the difference in temperament between the two creates an interesting tension that leaves us wondering how much of the friendship is based on mutual use. Is Ferris using Cameron to help him with his shenanigans? Is Cameron living vicariously through Ferris? Similarly, in the brilliant Mr. Mom, relationships between men serve to expose an underlying terror about being masculine “enough.” John Hughes, even if he’s largely known for the teen movies that everyone inexplicably loves so much, is usually really good about showing male intimacy in all its cautious sweetness and absurdity. So why didn’t it show up here?
Perhaps it’s the film’s pacing that’s at fault. We’re so focused on the two men getting to their destination that it’s only during the final act twist that we get a chance to breathe. By then, the stressful onscreen action has overtaken us as viewers. We’re not in any mood to see these men bond: we just want their long, long journey to be over. By the time John Candy’s character, who has been carrying around a framed picture of his wife the whole time, confesses that, *SPOILER ALERT* his wife has actually been dead for years and that he’s currently an unhoused person, it’s hard for us to feel the weight of that confession. We’ve spent so much time with these guys, we’ve watched them sleep together, drive together, live together, and experience gay panic together: what we haven’t seen, despite many opportunities, is actual intimacy.
And yes, it’s 100% my fault for expecting that from this movie to begin with. But when people tell me something is a classic, sue me, it’s in my nature to believe them. I wanted this movie to be something other than it was, and that’s something a critic should never do. It just feels like such a wasted opportunity to tell a story about two men for whom family is a complicated construct and not dig a little deeper into what they might mean to each other.
It could have been gay. It could have been SO gay.♦