It’s been a depressing couple of weeks. Everything going on in Ferguson is a nightmare that I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around and we’ve learned that Bill Cosby is a despicably evil monster (for a much more in depth take on that whole disgusting mess, check out Noah’s brilliant piece). But tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day where we are supposed to give thanks and count our blessings. I’m not the biggest fan of holidays in general and while I may question the day’s origins, there’s no denying that Thanksgiving is one our best days. Idiots across the country may use it as an excuse to shop but the rest of us know what it’s really all about: taking a few moments to share a meal with those we love and letting go of all the depressing bullshit that brings us down an a daily basis. I was going to write a list of the best Thanksgiving movies but discovered that there is really only one that deserves your attention. You may love Home for the Holidays and get some sick pleasure out of drunkenly sitting through Thankskilling but only one film truly understands what the holiday is all about. That film is John Hughes’s masterpiece, Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Released in 1987 and starring Steve Martin and John Candy, the film was a bit of a departure for Brat Pack master John Hughes. He had previously only made films about teenagers that treated them as real people, not manic sex addicts or fodder for a demented slasher. Planes, Trains and Automobiles was his first movie about adults. I wonder what it was like when the movie first made its way into theaters. Did people wonder whether or not the teen auteur would be able to capture adult characters with the same level of care? If they did, their skepticism was probably short lived. Planes, Trains and Automobiles provides us with two intensely relatable characters, both of whom have very different but also very similar reasons for wanting to get home for Turkey day. Anyone who has ever traveled during a major holiday will connect with the film instantly and it stuns me how timeless the story is. Planes still get delayed, trains don’t run on time, and automobiles frequently break down. Granted, they usually break down because of a mechanical error and not because of a loose cigarette but lets all agree that Hughes has a right to a little dramatic license.
The story is simple. Steve Martin plays Neal Page, a yuppie businessman struggling to get home for the holidays. He’s uptight, snotty, introverted, and slightly narcissistic. In other words, he’s the perfect approximation of the typical american businessman. John Candy is Del Griffith, a shower curtain ring salesman. He’s the polar opposite of Neal; gregarious, chatty, loud, somewhat crude, and big-hearted. The two men find themselves joining paths when their planes are cancelled. They share hotel rooms, train cars, bus seats, and cars as they try to make it home for Thanksgiving dinner. They argue, reconcile, hurt each other, forgive each other, but ultimately develop mutual understanding and respect.
There are a lot of laughs along the way. The scene where they are forced to share a bed and Neal shouts the immortal line, “Those aren’t pillows!” is one of the great moments in comedy history. Even better is their manly talk about the latest Bears game afterwards. Then there’s the classic scene where they are driving the wrong way on a highway and refuse to accept the advice of a fellow traveller until it’s far too late. There’s also the frozen car ride to a doomed train that features this classic exchange:
MARTIN: What do you think the temperature is?
And 0f course, there’s the film’s most infamous sequence, and reason for it’s R rating, as Martin hurls the F-word at a rental car agent over fifteen times in the course of a single sentence, culminating with, “I want a fucking car fight fucking now.” Her response to him is so unbelievably perfect it deserves applause.
But there’s a lot more to Planes, Trains and Automobiles than it’s perfectly executed comic sequences. It points a finger at what a cynical rat race holidays have become without ever becoming cynical itself. Airlines are uncaring, hotel managers distant or just completely out of whack, rental car agents oblivious, and Neal Page himself doesn’t even grasp how much time he spends away from his family until he is stuck on this strange journey. Much of the success of the film is due to Candy and Martin. They don’t play these roles so much as inhabit them, feeding off their own public personas. Martin, at the time, was known for playing uptight yuppies and Candy for lovable oafs. It sort of feels like their entire careers were building towards these characters.
Which makes their relationship all the more touching. Hughes mixes comedy and drama with the skill of William Shakespeare. I mean that. Take the scene in the hotel room where Martin launches into a tirade against Candy, calling him a “Chatty Cathy doll”. It’s hilarious until we see the hurt expression on Candy’s face. He defends himself to the best of his ability, stammering, “I…I like me” in a way that tugs at our heartstrings without manipulating them. It’s a completely honest moment and ones that makes us feel bad for laughing at him mere seconds earlier. Martin immediately regrets his harsh words but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they have been said. Still, a bond is formed between the two men at that point because of the raw emotions that have been exposed. It’s in this scene that the movie rises above the traditional road comedy and begins to morph into something truly special.
All of this culminates in the conclusion, which I intend to spoil for you if you haven’t seen the film. Go watch it and then comes back to this section. You’ve been warned.
When Martin finally makes it back home to Chicago, he begins to put together the pieces of Candy’s story and discovers that this odd man he’s been sharing the road with is harboring a hurt so deep it has crippled him. Griffith spoke of getting home to his wife the whole movie and Page uncovers the sad truth of those sentiments: Griffith’s wife has been dead for eight years and he’s been acting as a drifter ever since, moving from place to place and searching for a connection. When Page realizes this, he doesn’t admonish Griffith or curse him for lying. He simply shakes his head and in the next shot we see the two men walking to Neal Page’s house to share a Thanksgiving dinner. There’s no more animosity between them, only a deep understanding of what they both have gone through to get home. It’s a wonderful and shockingly moving conclusion. The last shot of the film shows Griffith smiling as Page embraces his wife. It suggests that there’s hope for both men; that they are finally free of societal expectations and fully in command of who they are and what they want.
What happens from there I cannot say. I can only say that the outlook looks good. And furthermore, isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about? Not just allowing a stranger to share a place at your table but also reminding yourself of what things you truly care about? Do you care about getting ahead in the business world or do you care about spending time with your family? Are you going to be dismissive of the strange guy you run into or are you going to hear his story? Are you going to let a tragedy ruin you forever or are you going to pucker up and move on? Planes, Trains and Automobiles presents us with two men who ultimately find the right answers to all those questions. So, as you sit down to your dinner tomorrow night, remember Neal Page and Del Griffith. Remember that two completely different people can be friends once they understand each other. Remember that empathy is the finest characteristic of any human being. Remember that the rat race isn’t real. But most of all, remember that those aren’t pillows.
I leave you with the final scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I can’t help but include it. So, if you don’t have time to watch the whole movie, just watch the last scene. Happy Thanksgiving everybody.