Holiday Rewind: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Yesterday’s Movies has been going on for long enough that even though I’ve been more likely to avoid seasonal movies than write a holiday post, there are enough holiday movies in the back catalog that I can take a month to review my reviews.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the only movie I ever think of as a “Thanksgiving movie”. Well, excluding A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving because it’s only a half-hour special. And it could really work just as well as a Christmas movie, but that just makes it slightly more interesting that it’s different like that.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Paramount Pictures 1987.

Neal Page’s family lives in Chicago, but he’s working in New York, which is a little unclear whether this is a regular thing or an increasingly frequent business meeting trip, but his plan is to dash out of his last meeting before the break and catch the 6:00 flight home. Even though some oaf with a huge trunk ineptly foils his attempts to get a cab twice, he manages to make it to the airport just in time to see his flight get delayed, and while waiting, he meets that oaf, the obliviously talkative Del Griffith, itinerant shower curtain ring salesman. Who is also his seatmate for the flight when they do get to board. When O’Hare gets shut down due to a snowstorm, Neal and Del’s flight gets diverted to Witchita, where Del suggests they share a cab to a motel he knows. On a complete disaster of a trip home, Del seems to have all the answers, but also provide all the problems, and Neal is seemingly shackled to this bad luck charm of a man by fate.

I’m always a little surprised to see this is a John Hughes movie. Hughes is cemented in my mind as being associated with teen (and preteen) coming of age movies, but I know he’s made plenty of adult-focused movies as well. Especially having that in mind this time, I kept thinking that Neal’s house looks like the Home Alone house, but it turns out they aren’t even the same style. Apparently Neal’s is a colonial and Kevin’s is a Georgian, and even bigger than Neal’s.

I think I know what I was going for when I called it “comedy that piles misery on top of misery”, but that’s more about secondhand embarrassment. When a protagonist is making a fool of themselves, it makes me squirm, but the humiliation Neal is going through isn’t embarrassment, it’s indignity. Neal suffering through this trip teaches him the humility to care for even someone as annoying as Del who’s reaching out for some human companionship.

There’s a couple of places where the editing is a bit confusing because something nondiegetic isn’t immediately recognizable as not being part of the scene, but that’s my main quibble. The no-homo type jokes in the shared hotel scene haven’t even aged all that terribly, as the main object of humor is the men’s own insecurities.

In a landscape replete with Christmas movies of all genres, this holiday travel movie doesn’t even have to be nominally set at Thanksgiving to have staying power. John Hughes seems to have had some kind of sense of how to make an evergreen classic through very human storytelling. Cookie cutter Hallmark movies may pull at the heartstrings, but I feel like movies like this give a nudge to the soul.

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