Could Planes, Trains & Automobiles still work today?

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

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

This year marks the 35th anniversary of what is widely considered to be the best Thanksgiving movie of all time—Planes, trains and cars. Paramount marks the occasion with a new remastered 4K release featuring over an hour of deleted scenes from the original film (which originally clocked in at three intense hours). The two-hander starring Steve Martin and John Candy as a pair of unlikely travel buddies trying to get home for Thanksgiving has stood the test of time when it comes to brilliant comedic beats, but with each passing year it gets a little more dated . With a possible remake on the way (or maybe not, considering Will Smith’s image isn’t what it was back in 2020 when the project was announced — imagine how that rental car meltdown would play now) we had to wonder how much of Neal and Del’s disastrous travel could be avoided today with all the innovations at our fingertips.

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 travel less necessary , so Steve Martin’s character might not have needed to be in New York at all to present a physical ad campaign to the indecisive client. Without that business trip two days before Thanksgiving, there is no movie, but where else would it have stalled along the way? Let’s take it blow by blow.

Airplane

Planes, Trains and Cars (9/10) Movie Clip – My Dogs Are Barking (1987) HD

The first sign that we live in a very different era is the fact that one of the first things Neal (Martin) does is check his watch. Besides that it is a very 80s watch, the time is also remarkable. It’s a quarter to five and he has a six o’clock flight. That he still expects to make it when he leaves the meeting shows how far we have come, and not necessarily in the right direction. This is probably the one case where things were simpler back then. Neal is more worried about the wait to find a taxi than being stuck in an airport security line (he’s actually beaten into an available taxi by Kevin Bacon in a memorable cameo). With no Uber or Lyft service, he has to pay a businessman cash for his cab and then loses it to Del (Candy) as opposed to a meet-cute.

Neal arrives at the airport at 5:58 and thinks he will still be able to board the plane if he rushes. There’s no waiting to go through security, no ID or ticket checkpoints (the TSA didn’t exist yet), so he sails through (we can’t actually see that, but the timing suggests there’s only a few minutes between arriving at the airport and reaches his gate). We never know if he would have actually made the original flight because by the time he gets to his gate it has been delayed.

When Neal finally comes on board with his paper ticket he discovers that he has been assigned a coach seat even though he has paid for first class. Could it happen now without the passenger being aware of it before boarding the plane? Neal and Del meet for the third time (after an awkward airport encounter) as seatmates, cementing the growing animosity between them. Their forced landing in Wichita, due to a blizzard in Chicago, is unfortunately something that still plagues travelers today. The aftermath, however, is another story.

Train

These are not pillows! – Planes, Trains and Cars (10/10) Movie CLIP (1987) HD

What’s the first thing you’d do if you were forced to make an unexpected landing in a random city and maybe have to spend the night? Pick up your phone and start looking for a hotel room, right? And if not, maybe you can turn to Airbnb or VRBO or a travel site for more options. What you don’t have to do is wait in a long line at a pay phone and risk all the local rooms being gone by the time you get to the front. That’s what’s happening with Neal, and that’s the leverage Del uses to stick with him a little longer. If Neal had other options, he would wait out the storm and get on another plane the next day. And that would be the end of the movie.

However, he lacks options, so he takes Del to the Braidwood Inn. Here’s another instance where a rideshare app would come in handy. They have to settle for the ’80s equivalent, Doobby’s Taxiola, a tricked-out taxi 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 rings them up with a manual carbon credit card machine and shuffles them as they hand them back. This could probably still happen today, but the error would be apparent much earlier.

Despite not specifying a smoking room (you weren’t required to at the time) Del smokes in the room. Don’t try to imagine what it must have smelled like in there; it is not a fun exercise. That night, while the guys are sleeping, a teenager breaks into their room and robs them (fun fact: in a deleted scene, the same teenager delivers a pizza to the room earlier in the night, and Del stiffs him on the tip, so this is his revenge) . If the door had an electronic card reader, as most hotel rooms have now, it would not have been so easy for the intruder to enter. They would still have their money the next morning, and one less thing to fight over.

A flight to Chicago still doesn’t look good (a weather app would take the guesswork out of it), so the next stage of the trip involves taking a train. They make it as far as Jefferson City before the train breaks down and they have to go to a bus station and catch a bus to St. Louis. Again, a Google search, a call to the credit card company, and a ride share would take care of all of this and Neal would be home for Thanksgiving. End of the movie.

Cars

AF***ing Car – Planes, Trains and Cars (6/10) Movie Clip (1987) HD

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

Neal’s next travel mishap is being dropped off in a rental car parking lot with a set of keys to a car that isn’t there. The bus drops him off and… just leaves him there. There is no other airport bus on the way. He is completely stuck. Again. This last straw leads to the famous “fucking” tirade directed at rental car agent Edie McClurg after he has to walk through the snow over a freeway and the airport runway itself to get there. The punchline is that he’s “fucked” because he’s lost his paper lease. It would be a snap to look up today if he didn’t already have it available on his phone, but no such luck for Neal

Del comes to his rescue again with a rental car that he was somehow able to acquire 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 car that you could smoke in. The near-death experience they have when they drive the wrong way on the freeway could have had easily avoided by using a navigation app. It wouldn’t have helped, however, when the car caught fire.

The last hotel they stay at together won’t take their toasted credit card (another phone call and this problem could have been solved too), so Neal trades in his smart watch to get a room. On their final leg, they are stopped by a state trooper (played by Michael McKean), who impounds their burned-out car. According to McKean, there was a scene where he tells them they’ve overshot Chicago by about a hundred miles (which a navigation app would have told them too). Finally, Del comes through with another primitive rideshare – a three-hour ride in the back of a cheese truck to downtown Chicago.

They seem to be going their separate ways again, and if Del had asked Neal for his email address instead of his home address, he might have given it to him. Del would definitely have found him on social media and followed every account. But that would have taken away the sense of reluctant parting that makes this scene so heartwarming. If Neal hadn’t put the pieces together on the train and gone back, there’s a real chance they would never have seen each other again. We’re glad he does because it makes for a perfect ending.

A clever writer could still make Planes, trains and cars working today with a few tweaks. Taking their smartphones out of play early, for example — due to damage or theft or whatever — would put the modern versions of Neal and Del in a position pretty close to where they were in 1987. The question isn’t whether it may be done, but whether it will be without John Hughes around to at least consult on the project. His characterization and storytelling skills – not to mention Martin and Candy’s performances – are what did the original more justice than a silly comedy of errors. The characters have stuck with us for so long because they are fully realized, flawed people who get under each other’s skin, then go deeper to find the beating heart within. That’s what keeps us coming back to this movie year after year, and that’s why it will never get old.

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