Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: My Favorite Thanksgiving Movie

by Michael B. Hock

I wasn’t allowed to watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles when it first came out in 1987. My parents, who pretty much allowed me to explore my own entertainment and love of movies, did have a few rules. One was that a movie with a scene that contained the “f-word” 18 times in 60 seconds probably wasn’t appropriate for an 8-year-old, and perhaps they were right. So I would have to wait at least until I was 10 to enjoy the life-affirming joy that is the road trip team-up of John Candy and Steve Martin.

Quick note to my parents reading this: I did not watch this movie when I was 10. I waited at least until whatever appropriate age you feel I should have watched it.

To me, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is the ultimate Thanksgiving movie. Not just due to the fact that it’s played on a non-stop loop around Thanksgiving (the plan that worked for It’s A Wonderful Life) but because of what the movie represents, and the ultimate message of the movie. It’s one that doesn’t shy away from the sheer ugliness that can be going home, but at the end of the day reminding you that the day is about being with the ones you love. Especially if they drive you crazy.

For the uninitiated, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is about Neal Page (Steve Martin) an advertising executive who is just trying to get home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. After his flight is diverted by a blizzard (it used to get cold around Thanksgiving, kids) he teams up with annoying but persistent shower-ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy) to try to get home.

They do, but obviously, hijinks ensure.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles could easily be a basic-road trip comedy, even as it stars comedy royalty like Steve Martin and John Candy and directed by directing royalty John Hughes. I mean, it has all of the universal hallmarks of a “wow it’s hard to get there” comedy road trip movie. Flight diverted? Check. Limited funds? Check. Wacky road trip hijinks? Check. Comical one room hotel room? Those aren’t pillows. Basically, it’s a boilerplate comedy that you’ve probably seen, even if you haven’t seen this movie.

Quick note to the younger readers: this was done before the age of cell phones and GPSes. We had to use things called “maps” and as any comedian in the 1980’s would tell you, wow, they were hard to fold. They also didn’t talk, so you had to look down to make sure you knew were you would going. They rarely resulted in you accidentally going in the wrong direction and starting a fire after driving in between two semi trucks, though.

What elevates this movie is the performances of the two leads, which isn’t evident until the ending of the movie. I’m not putting a spoiler tag, because this movie is 30 years old and really if you’re reading this, you should have seen it by now. Regardless, the end of the movie finds that Del was not trying to get home – he had nowhere to go. His wife died years ago. This changes literally every line and every motivation that this man has done throughout the movie, he was trying to get Neal home for the simple reason that he didn’t want Neal to miss time with his family.

This simple moment transforms a wacky comedy movie into something more urgent, something more meaningful. Neal is often annoyed by the hijinks of Del…that’s where most of the comedy originates. Neal, considering himself a good family man, just trying to get home, is annoyed by this interloper who is trying to do the same thing, obviously, but realizes they can do more by going together. It’s that moment where Neal realizes what Del was doing… that’s a powerful moment. Rarely does a movie have a moment that changes everything you’ve seen before it in such a profound way.

It’s a reminder of what this season is all about. Too often we get wrapped up in our own stuff. Let’s make sure that the Turkey is perfect, let’s make sure that we get the right presents, our traditions… when this is the time that we need to think of others. This is the time of year that we need to make life easier for everyone. This movie, which originally about simply two men trying to get home to their families, is given a brand new life when you realize that Del was simply trying to get Neal home in an extremely selfless act.

It’s a movie that lives in it’s flaws. It’s a movie that lives to get you to appreciate that life is terrible, but we have to love the flaws.

Ultimately, Neal does the right thing and invites Del home to spend time with his family. It’s a very quiet moment, one that is very different than the rest of the loud, obnoxious movie that preceded it. A quiet nod to his wife when this tired, exhausted man lets in a stranger to his house. Sure, by the end of the movie we love Neal and Del, but these people are strangers (remember: no cell phones, no FaceTime to introduce to his family to his new BFF.)

What makes Del so wonderful is that he loves himself, despite his flaws. He loves himself for his flaws. He loves himself because he had the love of his wife, something that he misses. I don’t know that Neal ever grows to appreciate Del’s flaws… I’d like to think that he doesn’t. He does learn to love Del for who he is.

“You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you… but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. Well, you think what you want about me; I’m not changing. I like… I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.”

This is a moment that’s telegraphed in the moment that actually kicks off this movie, where Neal’s boss is unable to pick a mockup, trying to decide which one is more perfect (something he is deciding well into Thanksgiving.) It’s the pursuit of perfection that is bad, but in accepting that things aren’t perfect, that’s when we can be happy.

To me, this is the ultimate Thanksgiving movie. The trip home is messy. You don’t always love who you’re with. And while we may be blinded to what’s around us, sometimes, we have put that aside and realize that the people we are with love us.

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