Neal Page (Steve Martin) wants to make it home before Thanksgiving, but the odds seem to be stacked against him. We are first introduced to the marketing strategist during the final hours of his work week, as he anxiously awaits project approval. Upon finally being released, he finds himself on New York City’s busy streets competing for a cab. After losing a foot race to Kevin Bacon, Neal bribes a lawyer for his cab only to have it snatched right out from under him.
Finally arriving at the airport, he runs into none other than his cab thief. The man introduces himself as Del Griffith (John Candy). When Del learns of his crime, he sincerely apologizes and requests an opportunity to make restitution. Neal wants to be left alone. When it comes time to board the plane, Neal gets downgraded from first class to coach. Guess who he finds himself sitting next to? Yeah, at this point you know what kind of movie you’re in for.
Del is completely unaware of his annoying idiosyncrasies and Neal feels the need to point them out. Following a two-minute monologue where Neal berates Del, we learn Del has feelings, and Neal isn’t comfortable hurting them. As he has done in other films (The Breakfast Club, She’s Having a Baby), John Hughes gives us characters with dimension.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles could very easily earn a spot as a holiday family classic if it weren’t for a scene midway through the film. Neal reaches his boiling point and expresses his dissatisfaction with a rental car agent (Edie McClurg) through repetitive use of an adjective we’re all familiar with. Genuine, heartfelt empathy for Neal is what gives this scene comedic value.