In the new John Hughes film, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," John Candy is so exuberantly cherubic that his feet never seem to touch the ground. As Del, a salesman for American Light and Fixture ("I sell shower curtain rings. Best in the world!"), Candy is a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. Del is a man of simple pleasures and homey virtues. If his feet hurt, he takes off his shoes -- and his socks -- right there in his seat. "Boy, are my dogs barking today," he says, giving the sock a good snap to whip out the sweat.
Anybody who has ever endeavored to jet or bus or otherwise transport him-or-herself from one place to another has met Del. For the regular commuter, he is that dread archetype -- the guy in the next seat. Your life is lived in mortal terror of him. If you're sitting quietly minding your own business waiting for your plane to take off and there's only one seat left on the aircraft and it's right next to you and a not-small person squeezes his way past the stewardesses and advances toward you grinning a big, blobby grin ... that's Del.
Only your worst enemy -- or that fiendish deity who takes a perverse joy from scrambling our travel destinies -- would give Del the seat assignment next to yours on a crowded commuter flight. But that's exactly what happens to Neal (Steve Martin), an advertising man trying to get from New York to Chicago to join his family for Thanksgiving.
But shortly after he meets Del this modest goal begins to look something like an impossible dream. This is not exactly Del's fault: After all, there's no way he could have any control over the massive snowstorm that closes the airport in Chicago and reroutes their flight to Wichita. Right? And likewise, there's no way that the later problems with the train, whose engine burns out in the middle of nowhere, could have anything to do with him. Right? Right?
But somehow if something goes wrong -- and if anything can go wrong it does -- Del is in there somewhere. And as a result, Chicago -- and Neal's comfy hearth -- keep getting farther and farther away.
What John Hughes, who wrote, directed and produced the film, has done here is make a weirdly inventive, offkilter comedy out of the horrors of modern travel. And in the process, he's also managed to make the funniest road movie since "Lost in America."
The smartest thing that Hughes has done in assembling his material is to see that it doesn't need to be exaggerated to be funny, that the best approach would be not to play it too broadly. Basically, Hughes relies on a tried and true comic approach: He puts his actors in terrible situations and lets them react. (It's the Laurel and Hardy principle.) And with performers like Martin and Candy, this begins to resemble something like genius.
Candy has had his moments on screen (I loved him in "Splash" and "Going Berserk"), but since leaving SCTV he's never had the showcase that his talents deserve. Not so anymore. Candy has never been more boisterously cracked than he is here. This is Candy's bust-out performance, the one where he puts it all together.
Just the sight of John Candy here is enough for a laugh. Oblivious to current fashion trends, he seems to base his wardrobe selections on maximum retinal irritation: If his parka is blue, it's eye-punishingly blue. And if by some fluke his tie were to be the right width the planet would probably come screeching to a halt in midorbit. Del isn't just a guy with questionable taste: He's way beyond that. He's a guy who revels in tackiness. He's hugely, grandiloquently gauche.
But, however bumbling, the guy's a mensch -- a kind of double-knit hero. And Candy never turns Del into a cartoon. Candy makes Del an irresistible slob, and his bad taste seems like an expression of joviality and bountiful high spirits. His caterpillary little mustache is his bid for dignity. Probably he wears it to make him seem older, more of a grown-up. But it's useless. He's ageless -- a jumbo Peter Pan.
There's not an ounce of elegance in Del, which is why pairing him with Steve Martin is such perfection. Martin may be the most physically eloquent performer since the silent years; just to see him sprint after a cab, as he does early in the film, is a treat. The partnering between Martin and Candy here is the most inspired form of comic symbiosis. There's real chemistry between these two, and you can feel their elation at being teamed together.
Martin's role is less showy than Candy's. He's more the straight man here, in more ways than one. Neal, in his custom-tailored suits, is all polish and slick professionalism. But he's a little cold, a little smug, and initially he's repelled by Del's familiarity. (And his snoring, and his socks in the sink, and his setting their car on fire.) But eventually he comes around.
That, after all, is the point of the story. Del, who serves much the same function as Henry Travers (the angel Clarence) in "It's a Wonderful Life," is on hand to teach Neal the meaning of Thanksgiving. As it turns out, "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" is a story about a man who can't get home and learns to value it and his family all the more because of his difficulties. It's about not taking things for granted.
This message is tacked on; it comes literally in the last sequence, and frankly I never saw it coming. As a result, it's pretty easy to detach -- and it's a good thing, too. Otherwise, the shift in tone from knowing, irreverent comedy to family sappiness might cheapen what Hughes and his cast have delivered -- a riotously springy holiday knockabout.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some profanity.