Of all the American holidays, there are perhaps the fewest good movies about Thanksgiving, most likely because there aren’t a lot of movies about Thanksgiving, period. After all, for a day known for its feasting, days off work, football, parades, napping and beginning the Christmas season, Thanksgiving is still a day a lot of people secretly dread. Ask 10 people about Thanksgiving dinner, eight will tell you they secretly dread family awkwardness, one will lie about it and the last is probably doesn’t even know what Thanksgiving is. If one has any sense of introversion at all, then the ritual gathering and forced conversation of Thanksgiving makes it more of a day to endure than to celebrate. Add on that, the fact that so many people must suffer through some of the worst travel days of the year over it, and it’s no wonder that Hollywood doesn’t crank out a lot of Thanksgiving movies. Once the tryptophan wears off, most people would just as soon forget the whole thing. But if we had to pick just one movie to stand as the silver screen’s avatar for everything we love and hate about Turkey Day, then there can be any no other serious option than John Hughes’ unexpected 1987 masterpiece: Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
The story takes place not quite three days before Thanksgiving, and uptight ad executive Neal Page needs to catch a flight to from New York to Chicago so he’s home on time. But as soon as his trip begins he encounters Del Griffith, a traveling shower curtain salesperson. Del is the guy who won’t shut up when seated next to you. He is slovenly. He shares too much information. He is that kind of weapons-grade overt friendliness that Midwesterners are so gifted in. In short, he is Neal’s worst nightmare. And after their flight to Chicago must reroute to Wichita, Neal and Del find themselves unlikely travel buddies as they bounce from conveyance to conveyance, from motel to motel, from one catastrophe to another, all in an epic quest to get back to Chicago. Before they get there, Neal might kill Del, but only if he doesn’t completely lose his mind first.
Were this movie in less skilled hands, it would have been a relatively mirthless road movie/buddy movie that takes cheap shots at a section of what coastal Americans unkindly refer to as “flyover country.” But that’s not what we have here. From Hughes’ writing and directing—driven by a deep love and respect for his Midwestern upbringing, warts and all—to the comedic genius of its leads Steve Martin and John Candy, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is replete with all kinds of gags that work twice as well as we expect them to. From start to finish, this movie proves again and again that concept is great, but execution matters.
Many of the movie’s best scenes arise from the genuine chemistry between Martin’s control freak Neal and Candy’s shambolic people person Del. As odd couples go, we can’t expect these guys to survive a three-block cab ride, let alone a cross-country transit nightmare. This story’s comedic through line is Neal’s increasingly unhinged state of mind as he is taken further and further from home by fickle fate. For anyone who has suffered the many indignities travel often imposes on us, Martin’s scathing disdain for everyone and everything contributing to his misadventure is priceless. Neal’s unexpectedly lengthy and profane tirade against a rental car representative, for example, is doubly funny when we realize that scene is the sole reason why Planes, Trains and Automobiles earned an R rating. It would otherwise be a solid PG—and could have played to much larger theater audiences, too. But the scene stays, and Martin slays, because the whole thing speaks so closely to the cruel reality that dealing with somebody else’s screw-up when far from home feels like paying for a crime one didn’t commit.
So with this in the background, there are plenty of scenes where Del manages to supremely enrage Neal and sometimes, Neal’s fury is more warranted than others. And while its funny to watch Neal blow his stack over a situation he cannot control, there is a limit to how funny it is to seeing him take it out on a guy who is really only trying to help him. We see this most early in the movie, where Neal and Del must share a hotel room for the evening and Neal just uncorks on Del, laying bare his every annoyance with him. Del manages to absorb Neal’s abuse, even though it cuts unexpectedly deep. Del tries too hard to make people like him, and he knows it. But he’d rather be that guy than to be anything else. And the longer we travel with him, the more we understand why he feels this way. But more importantly, we get to see Neal wake up to that fact, too. Neal’s not an inherently cruel guy. He’s just at the end of his rope and wasn’t prepared for Del. Who could be?
When the moment of truth comes, and Neal finally learns Del’s backstory, he sees his unwanted companion in a different light and is driven to extend a kind of generosity towards Del that he’d never have done otherwise. It’s a warm, sentimental end that feels both utterly predictable and yet fully earned. Thanksgiving is about being grateful for things which could be absent from our lives all too easily. When we gripe about our family, when we loathe what it takes to see them, then we dread the tableside conversation, we lose sight of why these things matter. And Planes, Trains and Automobiles manages to remind us of that poignantly without losing any of its comedic credibility. Neither Neal nor Del really deserved the adventure foisted upon them. But by the powers, are we glad that it was.