When it comes to holiday-themed movies, Thanksgiving always seems to get the short end of the stick. Around Halloween, people watch The Shining, The Exorcist, Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street; around Christmas, people watch It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, or Elf; and around Valentine’s Day, people watch When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, or countless other rom-coms. However, when it comes to Thanksgiving, there really only is one movie to watch (excluding, of course, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving TV special): Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was written and directed by John Hughes, creator of such classics as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles. While most of Hughes’ filmography depicts the lives and struggles of adolescents, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was a rare exception that dove into the life of a middle-aged character, Neal Page (Steve Martin). Neal is doing business in New York City just days before Thanksgiving, and is planning on catching a plane back to Chicago in order to spend the holiday with his family. However, a freak blizzard causes his flight to divert to Wichita, Kansas. Neal is forced to team up with an unintentionally obnoxious man he met back in New York City, Del Griffith (the late John Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman whose happy-go-lucky mentality greatly contrasts with Neal’s uptight persona. Over the course of the film, Del and Neal work together to get back to Chicago, and their various routes and means of transportation include, as you might surmise from the title — planes, trains, and automobiles.
The idea of a road trip movie starring two characters with starkly different personalities is nothing we haven’t seen before. In fact, since this film’s release, it has become somewhat of a cliché. However, this film has a sincerity that makes it stand far above the rest (not to mention the fact that it was released in 1987, before the clichéd rip-offs came along). First of all, Hughes’ script is both side-splittingly hilarious while also deeply sentimental. As with all of Hughes’ work, the humor consistently delivers; in fact, I personally consider this to be possibly Hughes’ funniest film (with Ferris Bueller close behind). The story’s heart, however, is what really draws the audience in and cements this film as a classic. The story is genuinely touching and contains a third-act plot twist that, while feeling a little heavy-handed, never fails to make me cry.
The characters are really what make this film special, thanks to both the excellent writing as well as the top-notch performances from Steve Martin and John Candy, possibly the two greatest comedians alive in 1987. In the hands of any other writer or actor, Neal’s neurotic tendencies would come across as degrading, but instead he is extremely relatable, truly serving as the audience’s surrogate into this story. In other hands, Candy’s Del Griffith would certainly be insufferably irritating, but instead, he is intensely lovable. Griffith is the film’s beating heart, and some of his dialogue has stuck with me for years.
Around the first act break, Neal and Del get into a massive argument (which breaks from typical film structure which would save such a scene for the final act). Neal berates Del for his constantly irritating habits, which prompts Del to go into a genuine and heartfelt monologue about how he loves himself regardless, causing Neal to feel incredibly guilty. This scene alone displays the brilliance of this film: the audience deeply empathizes with both of these characters, simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with each of them, and vacillating moment-to-moment between laughing at Martin’s impeccable delivery and feeling genuine sympathy for Candy. By the end of the film, these men’s strong friendship is palpable and infectious, really filling you with intense emotion when the time comes for them to say a sad farewell and part ways.
Ultimately, this film is the perfect story for the whole family — except for the fact that it is rated R. But to any reader who was planning on watching this Thanksgiving treat with an elderly grandparent or small child, fear not: the film is rated R literally only due to a (brilliant) minute-long sequence. Given that Hughes wanted this film to focus on adult characters, he decided to give it an R rating. And so, he wrote one single scene where the film pivots from a PG-rating to hard-R, where for 60 glorious seconds, Steve Martin, who has reached the absolute end of his rope and is on the verge of a mental breakdown, spews out a monologue that contains the f-word around twenty times. It’s arguably the funniest moment in the film; however, if you have young children present, just be sure to turn the volume down as soon as Steve Martin gets in line at the car rental facility.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles might be the only Thanksgiving-themed movie, but I am confident that even if there were others, it would still remain the best. The film’s humor, heart, and lovable characters make it not only one of my favorite holiday films, but one of my favorite movies of all time. I cannot recommend this movie enough. So enjoy your turkey and pumpkin pie, but don’t forget to watch this classic on Thursday.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is available on Amazon Prime, Sling TV, and fuboTV.