Daniel Metzger’s review published on Letterboxd:
This movie is brilliant. No film can make me laugh, cringe and tear up in such equal measure. It’s truly miraculous.
Just as a comedy, this movie is genius. From the comedic set-ups and payoffs, the terrible scenarios they come up with, the way things gradually and continually escalate throughout the film; it’s all perfectly constructed and hilarious. But what sets this film apart from other comedies of this type is the depth of emotion and humanity it gives its characters. Think of other films with this set-up of the kind of stiff guy stuck with the unbearable annoying guy...usually it’s a one joke movie that works on one level. I’m talking like What about Bob? (which I love) or Clifford (the movie where 40 yr old Martin Short plays a pre-teen demon child which is bizarre but I also love). In contrast, Planes, Trains and Automobiles asks the question: what if, rather than holding in his frustration and rage for the entire movie and then having a psychotic break and going homicidal in the final act, the irritated character instead unloaded on the obnoxious character 20 minutes into the movie? And what if the obnoxious character wasn’t an oblivious buffoon like Bob from What About Bob? or an evil demonspawn like Clifford from Clifford, and instead turned out to be a sensitive human being with feelings? That scene right there is what elevates this movie above other odd couple comedies. The characters in this film are real, believable people.
This has got to be Steve Martin’s best film and performance for me. Three Amigos makes me laugh the most but this is the better film. The way he is so low key and understated for the first chunk of the film and then becomes gradually more unhinged and manic over the course of the runtime is just wonderful. But even more-so this is a career defining performance from John Candy. Del Griffith is just one of the all-time best realized characters ever put to celluloid and that’s down to Candy’s wonderfully nuanced work here.
The movie pulls off such an impressive balancing act because Del is incredibly obnoxious and can be destructive and somewhat of an obstacle to Neal’s goal of getting home, so you really can’t blame him for getting mad at Del. But at the same time Del is such a wonderful and big-hearted guy that it’s impossible for the audience or Neal to stay mad at him. The movie also has the perfect sense of just how far to go. It starts off incredibly grounded and almost ordinary with the scenarios and problems facing the characters and even as it escalates to crazy heights, it never quite becomes implausible. It never devolves into cartoonish territory. There’s one scene that definitely comes close but it finds just the right level to hit so it doesn’t quite go overboard.
The only reason this isn’t a 5 star movie for me is I don’t think Hughes quite knows how to end it. The big reveal at the end is great and it brings me to tears, but the very last scene just doesn’t hit quite like it should. And it kind of highlights how the movie doesn’t exactly have a point to make. The film is about unlikely friendship and how we sometimes miss things that are right in front of us because we’re distracted by the frustrations of everyday life, but the last scene doesn’t really bring that all together. If there were just one more shot of them all around the dinner table, instead of just a couple somewhat awkward shots of Del standing there smiling, it would be a perfect film. As it stands still an all time great.