Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Planes, Trains and Automobiles ★★★★★

In all of cinema, there are few things harder to pull off than sweetness. Genuine, honest feel-good times are a tricky tightrope that far too often fall into either cynical faux-good cheer (think every single Dr. Sues adaptation that's over half an hour long) or unbearably saccharine, so-sweet-it’ll-give-you-diabetes slogs. This is especially true of holiday films; too often, they'll either be a grim, joyless "subversions" (Scrooged, the Jim Carrey Christmas Carol), or completely empty platitudes that mean nothing (I don’t know, I guess Air Buds would be a good example of this?). True, genuine sweetness requires a pitch-perfect balance between cynicism and sentimentality, an ability to acknowledge the harsher aspects of life while still maintaining a warm heart.

Part of what makes Planes, Trains and Automobiles the best Thanksgiving movie ever made, as well as a bona-fide masterpiece in its own right, is that it hits this balance from the first minute and never ever takes a wrong step. The story is one you’ve probably heard before: two mismatched characters are forced together by bad luck and circumstance. Their goals align; they're each trying to get back home in time for Thanksgiving. Neal (Steve Martin) is an uptight, anal retentive advertising man, clean shaven and well cut, and Del (John Candy) is a messy, perpetually crooked seller of shower head curtains (they’re the best in the world, he says). Everything about them doesn’t fit, but they’re stuck together, so they’d better figure out how to get along…

Aaaaaand I've lost you. Just by describing the movie, I’ve made it sound like the most generic, made-for-TV muck muck that ever existed. I cannot begin to explain how much of a disservice this does the movie. While watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles, all conventions fall to the side, until all that remains is the experience of watching something real. Neal and Del aren’t characters - they’re people, with lives and histories and feelings. And what’s happening to them isn’t the contrivances of a script - it’s just life, in all its crazy imperfections. There’s a scene where Del leads a bus full of strangers in singing The Flintstones theme song, climaxing with him screaming “WILMA!”, and it’s so funny, but it’s also so true. I remember bus rides where one person started singing their favorite song, and we all just had to join in.

This is a sweet, funny movie, but its warmth is earned, in part because it never sacrifices the meanness and nastiness of real life. The truck they ride to one of their many pit stops has nude pictures, slightly blurred out, in the background. Del may be cheerful, but he’s not oblivious; he’s able to have his feelings hurt, and hurt bad. And when Neal gets injured, it really seems to take a toll on him, all culminating in what has to be the greatest use of profanity in all of film.

Thanksgiving is at the center of this film, unlike Christmas, or Halloween, of which there are many more movies based around them. But it makes sense; all throughout the movie, Del and Neal dream of getting back to their families, of hugging their kids and kissing their wives, and of digging in to that dinner. They dream of being together with their own families, and in light of that, it makes sense that they forge such an odd and powerful relationship, one in which one can sucker punch the other, and they can both be laughing about it mere seconds later.

With respect to their respective filmographies, this is the best thing either Steve Martin or John Candy ever did by a wide country mile. By this point, they'd both honed their personas to a fine point, so that they were able to toy with, subvert, and breathe new life into them in this film. By beginning almost as caricatures, they transcend themselves, and find a kind of deeper cinematic truth in their interactions, both with each other and the world they inhabit.

John Hughes directed this movie; you might know him from Home Alone, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, or The Breakfast Club. And with respect to those movies, this is his masterpiece. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a movie that deserves to be seen at least once per year, on Thanksgiving, surrounded by loved ones. The power of this top-to-bottom perfect movie is the kind that deserves to be shared.


Happy thanksgiving, y’all

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