Thanksgiving movies are hardly a genre. Christmas films dominate the holiday film category during the winter months, as the nature of the Christmas holiday seems to offer more storytelling heft. Few films set around Thanksgiving focus on the holiday itself, instead using it as a setting for a story about something else.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) falls into the latter category -- a Thanksgiving movie where two men with polar opposite personalities are stuck in a race against the clock, trying to get home for the holiday as they are thwarted by every form of nonsense imaginable. The film is like a less-cerebral version of Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), where everything seems to work against the protagonists in unlikely and humorous fashion.
The hook in Planes is its humor, but the script is underpinned with strong character depth. Equal to the film’s funny moments are the ways it tugs on the heart, resulting in a sentimental ending that isn’t contrived or forced, but earned. It is a cross between a buddy comedy and a road film that deals with powerful heartache on the holidays in a seamlessly beautiful well-written and performed movie. Its message ultimately speaks to the spirit of the holiday that serves as its framework.
Neal (Steve Martin) is uneasy around people. He likes structure, and his restraint renders him a rigid and stiff character. He is obviously well-off, with a fancy marketing job and a nice house, and has subsequently lost touch with how to function with people like Del (John Candy). The two men first meet in New York City when Del accidentally steals Neal’s taxi. When they’re reintroduced a little later at the airport, Del feels genuinely sorry for the act, offering to buy Neal a hot dog and a beer. Neal says no, so Del offers just a hot dog. Then coffee. Then milk. Soda. Tea. Lifesavers. A Slurpee. The only thing Neal wants is to get home to Chicago... and for this guy to shut up. Neither of those things happen for quite a while.
Between flight delays, snowstorms, accidental cuddling in a motel room, a dead locomotive, a car fire, and a terrifying ride in the back of a hillbilly’s truck, the thing that bothers these two more than anything is being trapped in the company of one another.
Reelviews writes, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is one of those rare movies that manages to mingle outrageous comedy and light drama in such a way that we aren't repulsed or offended by its simplicity and occasional mawkishness. It's a fine cinematic treat that doesn't demand much from a viewer, but gives back a lot, both in terms of laughter and good feeling.”
That is what makes this picture work as a film set in the spirit of Thanksgiving. Beyond its absurd moments and unlikely events, beyond Neal’s anal-retentiveness and Del’s bad mustache, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a film about understanding the troubles of the people around you. It’s about developing tolerance and empathy and self confidence. If someone doesn’t like you for you, that’s their loss. “I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you, but I don't like to hurt people's feelings. 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."
Of course, we know these two are going to get back to Chicago in the end. The fun is watching their bond slowly and reluctantly form despite their irksome natures. There is just enough drama peppered throughout the comedy to feel genuine and not oppressive. When the final dramatic crescendo is hit at the end of the picture, we realize just how well we’ve been invested in the film’s emotional narrative all along.
Thanksgiving is a holiday in which -- as the name implies -- we are to give thanks. We are to remember all the things that make our lives what they are, and focus on the good. Del and (particularly) Neal spend the bulk of Planes, Trains and Automobiles doing the opposite. As the defenses in their personalities soften, they realize the adventure they’ve had was an experience that brought them together. Hughes' story shows how humorous and affirming heartache can be. As Neal sits on the train that will serve as his final mode of conveyance to finally returning home -- the goal he has been after the entire film -- his mind drifts from thoughts of seeing his family to recollections of his adventure. He finds humor and warmth in his memories of he and Del's folly, disembarks the train, and returns to Del. Neal’s internal character growth comes at just the right moment as his return to the train station reveals Del is not headed home for the holiday after all. He has no home, and his wife died eight years ago. “What you see is what you get,” he said of himself, and it couldn’t be more true. Neal has been riding around with a man who carries everything he has in the world with, and within, his person.
Neal does get home to find his family waiting for him, but he’s not alone. He brings “his friend” Del Griffith. The way Candy plays the scene shows the comedic Saturday Night Live (1975) alum had serious ability to project emotion.
Ultimately, Planes, Trains and Automobiles teaches its main characters to value and appreciate one another. Managing this bond at Thanksgiving encapsulates the spirit of the holiday, making the film the consummate entry in the short category of Thanksgiving films.