A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
The letters in the title of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" roar across the screen like a streamliner, and the movie itself has the same confidence. The movie tells the story of two travelers who share a modest wish in life, to fly from LaGuardia to O'Hare on schedule, and it follows with complete logic the chain of events that leads them to share a soggy bed in a cheap motel in Wichita, Kan.
The travelers are played by Steve Martin and John Candy, Martin as the fastidious, anal-compulsive snob and Candy as the big, unkempt shower-ring salesman with a weakness for telling long stories without punchlines. Both actors are perfectly cast, not so much because they are physically matched to their roles as because the movie is able to see past their differences to an essential sweetness they share.
The film was written and directed by John Hughes, who previously has specialized in high-quality teenage movies, such as "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club." One hallmark of Hughes' work is his insistence that his characters have recognizable human qualities; he doesn't work with a cookie cutter, and the teenage roles he wrote for Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Matthew Broderick and others helped transform Holywood's idea of what a teenage movie could be. Hughes' comedies al ways contain a serious undercurrent, attention to some sort of universal human dilemma that his screenplay helps to solve.
All of which may seem a million miles away from Steve Martin and John Candy, whom we left on that beer-soaked mattress in Kansas. ("You should have known what would happen when you left a six-pack on a vibrating mattress," Martin nitterly complains.) But "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is a screwball comedy with a heart, and after the laughter is over the film has generated a lot of good feeling.