Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

Are we doing Thanksgiving movies now? As a matter of policy, I'm not certain - we've always kind of punted on the question of whether we should view Thanksgiving as an independent holiday or whether it should be viewed as the kickoff to the Christmas season, and the general scarcity of movies centered around the holiday make the point largely moot. But John Hughes's Planes, Trains & Automobiles has started to feel like a notable omission in our collection of reviews of holiday media. Making matters more complicated is the fact the movie is sometimes advertised in a way implying it's a Christmas movie, with a large candy cane signpost displaying the title. Someone wants people to associate this with Christmas, even if the movie is explicitly set over the lead-up to Thanksgiving and culminates with that holiday.

It's also worth noting the movie prominently shows Christmas decorations, along with wintery imagery. None of this is out of place for Thanksgiving, of course, but it's not difficult to see how viewers might confuse the setting, particularly if going off of memory (over the last decade, I double-checked more than once). If you want to grade this on a technicality, the movie opts to portray its setting as "before Christmas."

Likewise, the theme and plot would be commonplace alongside standard Christmas fare, but before discussing that it would probably make sense to describe the movie. The film's POV character is Neil, played by Steve Martin, a marketing executive attempting to get home in time for Thanksgiving despite a seemingly endless string of delays and misadventures, usually connected in some ways to Del, a good-natured but accident-prone salesman played by John Candy. Neil attempts to break away from Del several times, but some combination of luck or fate keeps driving them back together as they make their way towards Chicago using a combination of planes, trains, and automobiles.

Along the way, we follow Neil as he grows increasingly irritated with Del's bumbling, before inevitably befriending and even coming to love him (exclusively in a familial sense: the movie wears its homophobia like a badge). By the end, Neil learns that Del has been lying to him the whole movie about having a home: his wife has been dead for years, and he has nowhere to go. So of course Neil brings him to his house for Thanksgiving (and presumably longer).

I'm not going to go through the various adventures the pair go on, because (as is typical with road trip movies) you could more or less cycle out any individual leg of the trip with some new escapade and it wouldn't impact the story. The physical journey is a backdrop for the emotional one the characters embark on: that's how these work.

The movie's plot is almost more noteworthy for what's missing than what's present, as a number of subplots were removed prior to release, when the film was whittled down to an hour and a half from a cut more than twice as long. Among the deleted storylines was a subplot about Neil's wife suspecting him of having an affair (you can make out the edges of this in Laila Robins's performance) and setup for the main characters getting robbed early in the movie. I have no idea whether all this context would have made the film more interesting or just stretched it out to a tedious degree, but I'll admit I was a little disappointed to find out the original 3-hour and 40-minute cut and associated footage has been lost, denying us an answer.

Due to the focus on family and a storyline centered around returning home in time for the holidays, I found myself wondering why this wasn't set at Christmas. I suspect if it had been made any later, it would have been - my guess is executives hadn't fully grasped the potential marketability of Christmas movies in 1987, and therefore didn't see a point in pressing Hughes to set it in December rather than November. Regardless, it makes the movie something of an anomaly in the genre.

I haven't weighed in on whether or not I think Planes, Trains & Automobiles is any good yet, so I suppose I should rectify that. It's a little complicated here, because my appraisal of the movie's technical quality differs from my personal enjoyment. I think this is well-shot, acted, and edited, but - with a handful of exceptions - I didn't find it all that funny. The emotional payoff works a little better for me, but even then it's more at the level of "solid kids' movie" than "good drama." And, it should be mentioned, Planes, Trains & Automobiles isn't a kids' movie.

At least, not exactly. On one hand, it kind of is a kids' movie, both in terms of the humor and content. I certainly watched this when I was young, as did many in my generation. And there's really only one scene escalating the rating from PG to R: an extended sequence in which the word "fuck" is used repeatedly while the main character argues with a clerk at a car rental company. Normally I'd say something like this was unnecessary and should have been cut, but...

It's absolutely the best scene in the movie. It's the funniest Martin is in the entire film, Edie McClurg is great as the midwestern employee, and - considering how poorly other aspects of Hughes's filmography aged - it stands out as being unusually forward-thinking. The movie places us in Neil's shoes, shows us what he goes through, then gives us a brief moment of catharsis as he takes out his frustrations on the poor woman. But instead of leaving it there, it inverts the dynamic by allowing her to respond in kind in such a way she becomes the character the audience is cheering for. We're shown how Neil is ultimately done in not by happenstance but by his reaction - a perfect illustration of the arc he needs to go through over the film - and at the same time we're reminded that it's neither acceptable nor productive to take out frustrations on service employees. In a movie with a few cringe-inducing "we're not gay" moments, it's nice to see something hold up well.

I can't really recommend this to anyone too young to have grown up with the movie, though it might be worth trying to track down the car rental scene on YouTube or something. This is a movie of its time, and I realize a lot of people who saw it in that context still view it as something of a classic. It's well regarded by critics, who seem to have grown more fond of it following the death of John Candy (who, it should be noted, does really good work selling Del's transition from comedic foil to lovable friend). But I don't think anyone not already invested in the humor is going to find this all that amusing, and while the emotional arcs are well executed, that's no longer as unusual in this kind of comedy as it once was. There are a few scenes that still work, but on the whole, this really isn't essential.