Ladies and gentlemen, be sure to hit the head now. Zap a couple bags of popcorn in the microwave, grab some candy, and don’t forget your beverages. Power on your television and switch on your VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It’s time to travel back to revisit movies you’ve heard of, maybe even some you’ve just given no mind to watch at all. It’s time for Be Kind Rewind Theater!
Today’s the 22nd of November and you know what that means? … no, not that Christmas is around the corner. See, I knew the first thought in your mind would drift to is Christmas. We get this late in the year, generally the last day of working before the holiday season truly kicks into high gear, and everyone’s minds are quick to shift right to December. Christmas lights, Christmas trees, Christmas music, Christmas movies. Yeah Freeform, I’m talking to you too! Already playing both Elf and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with nary a thought about another holiday that comes first, c’mon! (Hey, there ain’t anything wrong with either movie, just so you know, I love both equally all throughout the year.) There’s just one holiday we tend to skip past and not fully acknowledge these days, aside from the day’s gluttonous nature. You know, the Pilgrims and the Indians breaking bread together for the first time? Cornucopias? A hearty feast of foods to fill up your gullet? Oh c’mon, just because retailers don’t fully embrace this holiday doesn’t mean you need to forget either. That’s right – tomorrow’s Thanksgiving!
Thanksgiving in itself offers many traditions that families honor all across the country. (Remember, we’re the only country who truly celebrates Thanksgiving. Well, Canada does too but twas a month and a half ago.) The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade airs throughout the morning, a large display of various floats and oversized balloons marching down 77th Street to Central Park West, while you lazily doze off on the couch as various musical acts and cheery commentary echo through your living room. The morning is spent preparing all sorts of foods – turkey, potatoes (say it as pah-tate-ehs), baked corn, homemade cranberry sauce (the only kind!), pumpkin pie, all the trimmings and fixin’s. The Detroit Lions play at 12:30pm, the Dallas Cowboys take the field at 4:00pm, and a late game follows to form a football trifecta. However, there’s one tradition I’ve followed since I was a little kid that I honor every Thanksgiving. I don’t care if I have to follow the custom very late Wednesday night or first thing Thursday morning. There’s one movie that I have to watch every year at this time. Ladies and gentleman, I present to you one of the best John Hughes classics – Planes, Trains, & Automobiles!
Planes, Trains, & Automobiles
Written and Directed by John Hughes
Starring Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Dylan Baker, and Michael McKean
By 1987 John Hughes had redefined an entire generation of teenagers, his voice echoing with those growing up in the 1980’s. His comedy wasn’t as raunchy as today’s standards mind you, but his library is replete with a slew of modern classics. I guarantee you’ve seen most, if not all, of them. National Lampoon’s Vacation. Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, easily two of his most influential works of the mid-80’s. Weird Science. Pretty In Pink. Oh, and of course the ultimate classic Ferrie Bueller’s Day Off. Even after remaining heavily focused on growing up as a teenager in the most awkward years, Hughes still hadn’t made a movie about adults. Sure, adults were a prominent part of his films, but never the focus of the plot. And while he was busy scripting his next feature, the Kevin Bacon-led She’s Having A Baby, he had another idea form in his head. Hughes was taking a flight flight from New York to Chicago but, due to inclement weather, was diverted to Wichita, Kansas. The diversion took him a total of five days to get home. Three days in front of his keyboard later, the script for Planes, Trains, & Automobiles was born, his first tale featuring mature adults thrust in sticky situations on their travels back home.
The plot focuses on a weary ad executive, Neal Page, aiming to get home in time for Thanksgiving to be with his wife and kids. Neal is dedicated to his work and stuck in his own routines, afraid to develop relationships with strangers in his vicinity and his fear of germs keeping him well inside his safe zone. Neal prefers first class, to be away from the throng of passengers in coach, able to breathe and stretch out to unwind. And then his world is turned upside down as he heads towards the airport. Another gentleman keeps popping up around him – for starters, stealing his cab in New York City rush hour – and seemingly ruining his attempts to get across town. Del Griffith is a traveling shower curtain ring salesman and, as their shared flight is inadvertently diverted from snowy Chicago to frigid Wichita, the two men begrudgingly work together to ensure that Neal can make it home in time to be with his family.
The plot’s easy enough to follow. Two men, nothing in common, forced to band together to work towards a common goal. Easy-peasy. Though you assume a comedic tour-de-force such as John Candy would be the star of this road-trip comedy, you’d be wrong. Steve Martin actually steals the show as the nuanced, yet increasingly unhinged, Neal Page.
To start, Neal Page is written more as the straight character, not as much a clown or as mildly innocuous as Candy’s Del Griffith. And that’s why Steve Martin, whose brand of humor varies greatly from fellow comedians, is perfectly cast as the overworked advertising executive. Steve Martin cemented himself as part of the production after two scenes from Hughes’ script wrote stuck out to him – a seat adjustment-scene in the confines of a rental car and a F-bomb tirade Page assails at a car rental clerk. There are times that Martin strays from the whimsical material and is more of a pensive nature, portraying Page as a working man too entrenched with his customs to step outside his comfort zone. He doesn’t want to owe anyone anything. He loathes public telephones and being crammed among regular folk, feeling stifled and unable to breathe. Neal enjoys having his space, withdrawing from the hustle and bustle transpiring around him. And Del’s nature is the oil to Neal’s water, the two disagreeing over practically everything during their expedition northward. As his bout with bad luck burgeons, Neal finally begins to lose his wits. And that’s when the best bits with Neal finally start to shine through.
John Candy, who usually would provide the stronger comedic voice in any role (see anything he did in the mid-to-late 1980’s), plays second fiddle to Steve Martin, but serves as the match to light the fuse. Del is a tad overbearing at every turn, not wanting to offend Neal but also unable to accept Neal doesn’t want his assistance. A movie about Steve Martin’s Neal would be utterly boring. Factor in John Candy’s Del and every detour that could possibly come their way, what you have is a lean 93-minute comedy that’ll have you rolling from beginning to end, with Del’s desire to help the source of the hilarity. Del does his very best to get Neal home, but his shortcuts usually come at a cost. Need a ride to catch a train? No problem, he’ll call a friend of a friend – except the ride won’t be in warmth. He’ll take you across the state in a car he rented when your car is already claimed – but naturally, he won’t be able to get comfortable and break the passenger seat. He’s unorganized, the polar opposite of Neal’s neatness, the two’s differences coming to light as they have to share a bathroom together. At every twist of the plot, just when you think the two will get ahead, suddenly they’re left trying to get their footing back. And then, of course, is Del’s offer to get Neal a hotel room. Well, alright, minus the fact there’s only one room left. And the bed’s a double, not two singles.
What you get is a brief, and hilarious awkward, conversation that you’ll never forget – “Where’s your hand?” “Between two pillows.” “…those aren’t pillows.”
Though, the question is – why exactly is Planes, Trains, & Automobiles the seminal Thanksgiving film? Because Hughes’ film is about being thankful for what you have. The plot is of two men, one very unappreciative and the other very kindhearted, who happen to cross paths at the right time when they need each other most. They both take the world they live in for granted. (Don’t worry – there’s more to the story than what I’ve mentioned, absolutely no spoilers will be said by me.) And both needed each other the most when absolutely necessary. Thing is, both men are very much flawed but too overly confident to admit their faults. Neal is a perfectionist who knows he needs to be home more, to spend time with his growing young children and a wife who can’t manage the home fully on her own. Problem is, Neal is so entrenched in his routine that he doesn’t want the break the mold. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, that’s how he gets by daily. Del, on the other hand, has a fault that we all share, especially if you’re exceedingly friendly and nice. Del can’t say no. He can’t bear to have people hate him. He desires that everyone find him likable. Sure, he’s got his quirks (don’t we all?), but he too has a hard time taking a breather. He’s always on the go, his entire life packed away in a trunk he drags by his side, a loving photo of his wife tucked into a corner. He’s committed to doing everything better, to be better, but also can’t bring himself to just stop and go home himself. Neal and Del are two men destined to open each other’s eyes to their respective lives and the change that both need to accomplish.
And sure, even as their misfortunes rise, the two don’t ever throw in the towel. How often can things often get worse than they already are? That’s a phrase we typically exclaim when we’re in disbelief over how Godawful life can be at times. But imagine that every obstacle loom in your path. Flights are delayed. Someone breaks into your hotel room, your credit cards and cash are snatched under your nose. You can’t pay for your breakfast. And then your ride out of town isn’t in a warm car but the rear of a pick-up truck. And that’s just the start of the troubles. Sure, giving up is terribly easy. (Remember – Clark Griswald didn’t give up trying to get to Walley World after all.) Yet, as often as Neal shrugs and remains unsure just how he’ll make it home in time, Del won’t let him give up. Out of the goodness of his own heart, he continues to help Neal at every turn, despite how callous and inhumane Neal’s attitude remains. As a buddy road-trip movie, yes, Del is the responsible party to instill change with Neal, that’s obvious from the get-go. Del, like most of us, knows the pains of not having the most perfect life and wears those lessons in his sleeve proudly as gained knowledge, his emotions visible to anyone who pays him attention. That’s a hell of a lesson to learn from a comedy – be kind to all, no matter how others treat you, and your humanity will pay for itself in the long run.
Hughes of course penned other works that became fan favorites right away too. The Great Outdoors and Uncle Buck, both anchored by the surly Candy. Christmas Vacation needs no introduction. Oh, and of course he owns another Christmas tradition aside from the misfires of Clark W. Griswald, Home Alone. Hell, John Hughes wrote another Thanksgiving road-trip flick, Dutch, that starred Ed O’Neill bringing home his girlfriend’s bratty child but didn’t leave the same footprint that Planes, Trains, & Automobiles would. And every year, as the temperature finally begins to lower, the colder temps bringing the familiar achiness to my knees and back, I know what’s just around the corner. And while this quintessential Hughes film can be watched at any point in the year, Thanksgiving remains my favorite to indulge on Blu-ray. Planes, Trains, & Automobiles serves as a reminder that you must remain broad-minded by those who enter your life, even when you least expect an interruption to your routines. At any moment your life can instantly change for the better, though not in as disastrous a fashion as Neal and Del’s calamity, and you would be wise to not ignore the signs life is laying before you. We’re only better for John Hughes writing this classic and you would be wiser to include this in your Thanksgiving festivities, if not for the underlying message then for the side-splitting antics of both Steve Martin and John Candy.