Could planes, trains and cars still work today?

Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains & Cars (Image: Paramount Pictures)

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

This year marks the 35th anniversary of what is widely considered the best Thanksgiving movie of all time—Planes, trains and cars. Paramount marks the occasion with a new 4K remastered version with over an hour of deleted scenes from the original film (which initially ran to full three hours). The double-dealing 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 brightly paced comedic beats, but as the years go by it gets a little more dated. With a can remake in the works (or maybe not, considering 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 trip Del could be avoided today with all the innovations we have at hand.

In an age of internet-enabled smartphones, digital wallets, and apps like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, there are so many solutions that make traveling easier than it was in 1987. We even have virtual meeting software that makes traveling less necessary , so Steve Martin’s character may not even have had to be in New York to pitch a physical ad campaign to that undecided client. Without that business trip two days before Thanksgiving there’s no movie, but where else would he get stuck along the way? Let’s take it beat by beat.

Planes

Planes, trains and cars (9/10) Movie CLIP – My dogs bark (1987) HD

The first sign that we’re living in a very different era is the fact that one of the first things Neal (Martin) does is check his watch. In addition to being a very 80s watch, the weather is also remarkable. It’s a quarter to five and he has a six o’clock 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 things were simpler back then. Neal is more concerned with being late in getting a cab than with getting stuck in an airport security line (in fact he was beaten into an available cab by Kevin Bacon in a memorable cameo). With no Uber or Lyft service she has to pay a businessman cash for his cab, then loses it to Del (Candy) as opposed to a cute meet.

Neal arrives at the airport at 5:58 am thinking he will still be able to get on the plane if he rushes. There’s no waiting to go through security, no ID or ticket checkpoints (TSA didn’t exist yet), so navigate (we don’t actually see that, but times suggest just a few minutes between arrival at the airport and reach its door). We will never know if he actually would have made the original flight, because when he gets to his gate he was delayed.

When Neal finally gets on board with his paper ticket he discovers that he has been allocated a coach seat despite paying for first class. Could it happen now without the passenger noticing before boarding the plane? Neal and Del meet for a third time (after an awkward airport encounter) as seatmates, cementing the growing animosity between them. Their forced disembarkation in Wichita, due to a snowstorm in Chicago, unfortunately, is something that still plagues travelers today. The aftermath, however, is a different story.

Trains

Those aren’t pillows! – Planes, Trains and Cars (10/10) CLIP Movie (1987) HD

What’s the first thing you would do if you were forced to make an unexpected landing in a random city and had to spend the night? Pick up the phone and start looking for a hotel room, right? If not, you may want to look to Airbnb or VRBO or a travel site for more options. What you shouldn’t be doing is waiting in a long line for a payphone and risking all the local rooms gone before it gets to the front. This is what happens to Neal, and it’s the leverage Del uses to stay with him a little longer. If Neal had had other options, he would have waited out the storm and got on another plane the next day. And that would be the end of the movie.

She’s out of options, though, so she heads with Del to the Braidwood Inn. Here’s another case where a rideshare app would come in handy. They have to make do with the 1980s equivalent, Doobby’s Taxiola, a souped-up cab with a shady driver who insists on taking the “scenic route” in the middle of the night. Both men hand their Diners cards (which still exist!) to the hotel clerk who dials them with a manual carbon credit card machine and shuffles them when he returns them. This could probably still happen today, but the error would be apparent much earlier.

Despite not specifying a smoking room (this was not required at the time), 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 sleeping, a teenager breaks into their room and robs them (trivia: in a deleted scene, the same teenager delivers a pizza to the room earlier in the night and Del stiffens him on the toe, so this is the his revenge). If the door had had an electronic card reader like most hotel rooms now, it wouldn’t have been so easy for the intruder to get inside. They’d still have their money in the morning, and one less thing to fight about.

A plane to Chicago still doesn’t sound good (a weather app would take the guesswork out), so the next stage of your trip involves catching a train. They make it as far as Jefferson City before the train stops and have to walk to a bus station and take a bus to St. Louis. Again, a Google search, a call to the credit card company, and a ride in the car would take care of all of that, and Neal would be home for Thanksgiving. End of the movie.

Automobiles

AF***ing Car – Planes, trains and cars (6/10) CLIP Movie (1987) HD

With no money for any more tickets, Del goes into salesman mode and earns some cash selling shower curtain rings (which, by the way, are also mostly obsolete now), helps Neal, and after sharing a meal at a diner in St. Louis, they once again go their separate ways. We might also take this opportunity to note how many payphones Neal uses in this film to call home. His wife has no idea where he is, so she can’t contact him directly. She can only wait for him to call her with his travel updates as Thanksgiving draws ever closer. It is unfathomable.

Neal’s next travel mishap is being left in a rental car lot with a set of keys from a car that isn’t there. The bus drops him off and… leaves him there. There are no other airport shuttles arriving. It’s completely blocked. Yet. That last straw leads to the famous “fucking” tirade aimed at Edie McClurg as a car rental agent, after he had to walk through the snow across a highway and airport runway to get there. The punchline is that he’s the one who’s “fucked” because he lost his paper rental agreement. It would be a no-brainer nowadays, if he didn’t already have it accessible on his phone, but no luck for Neal

Del comes to her rescue again with a rental car that he somehow managed to purchase with Neal’s Diners Club card. He lights a cigarette just like in the room, and we’re willing to bet he didn’t have to request a smoking car. easily avoided by using a navigation app. However, he wouldn’t help when the car caught fire.

The last hotel they spend the night together won’t accept their toasty credit cards (one more phone call and that, too, could have been fixed), so Neal trades in his luxury watch to get a room. In the last leg, they are stopped by a state trooper (played by Michael McKean) who impounds their burnt out car. According to McKean there was footage of him telling them they passed Chicago by about a hundred miles (something a navigation app would have told them too). Finally, Del comes up with another primitive shared ride: a three-hour ride in the back of a cheese truck to downtown Chicago.

It seems they’ve split up again, and if Del had asked Neal for his email address instead of his home address, he might have given it to him. Del surely would find him on social media and follow every account. But that would have taken away from the feeling of reluctant parting that makes this scene so moving. If Neal hadn’t put the pieces together on the train and gone back, there’s a very real possibility they would never have seen each other again. We’re glad he does, because it’s a perfect ending.

An intelligent writer could still do Planes, trains and cars work in the present day with some modifications. Knocking out their smartphones early on, for example, due to damage, theft or otherwise, would put the modern versions of Neal and Del somewhere close enough to where they were in 1987. The question isn’t whether it can be done , but if it should be without John Hughes around at least to consult on the project. His characterization and storytelling skills—not to mention the performances of Martin and Candy—are what made the original more righteous than a goofy comedy of misunderstandings. The characters have stayed with us for so long because they are fully realized and flawed human beings who get under each other’s skin, then go deeper to find the heart beating inside. This is what keeps us coming back to this film year after year and why it will never become obsolete.

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