The Essential Thanksgiving Movie
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles has garnered a reputation as that John Candy/Steve Martin movie set during Thanksgiving; it’s time to see it as a big-hearted and insightful holiday masterpiece
With Netflix’s seasonal offerings, Hallmark Christmas movies, and basic cable yuletide countdowns commencing the day after Halloween programming ends, the same Christmas creep that has made Thanksgiving a near afterthought extends to the holiday’s viewing options. Given the long weekend’s status as perhaps the lowest-key event on the fall calendar, the Thanksgiving movie curiously remains by and large an untapped genre. Beyond oddities like 2013’s animated turkey time-travel epic Freebirds and the early-90s Pauly Shore vehicle Son-in-Law, Thanksgiving’s onscreen legacy rests almost exclusively within the hands of indie auteurs mining family dysfunction in seminal films (Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm), largely forgotten gems (Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays, Bart Freundlich’s The Myth of Fingerprints), and instances of ambitious rich kids using the family property to make a microbudget calling card that will secure them a feature deal with A24 (Trey Edward Shults’s Krisha).
The dearth of Thanksgiving movies is so severe that audiences not yet ready to embrace the sounds of the season have somehow made the case for Martin’s Scorsese brilliant The Last Waltz—a documentary of The Band’s farewell concert that happened to fall on the holiday—as perennial viewing. Amid such light competition, John Hughes’s 1987 comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles filling the timeslots on AMC networks during Thanksgiving week comes as little surprise. It’s set during Thanksgiving, features 80s comedy legends Steve Martin and John Candy riffing off each other, and boasts perhaps the most earned twist ending in cinema history (even though it almost didn’t happen). Yet, while the film has seemingly taken up the mantle as the definitive Thanksgiving movie by default, it not only deserves its legacy but rivals Christmas classics like It’s a Wonderful Life in its depth and timeless appeal.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles opens with a slightly askew shot of a skyscraper in New York City from ground-level view that immediately gestures toward the class divide that dominates the film. From his lofty position in the structure, advertising whiz Neal Page (Martin) audibly sighs and alternates his gaze between his watch and a plane ticket stamped with a 6 p.m. departure time as a high-powered executive hems and haws over options for a new make-up campaign. “It’s cosmetics, not curing cancer,” Neal sneers to his colleague as they barrel toward an elevator while barely masking their fury over their client’s decision to reconvene after the holidays. Neal has jaunted from Chicago to the Big Apple two days before Thanksgiving, the type of trip his executive privilege has made a rote part of his working life. He’s the type of guy who would dismiss the Midwest as Flyover Country at a cocktail party if he didn’t happen to be from the one metro area in the region that his ilk considers the exception. He tries in vain to hail a rush-hour taxi, thwarted first by a debonair Kevin Bacon in a meta cameo (he’s playing his character from Hughes’s next film She’s Having a Baby) and then by a grizzled New Yorker who proclaims “I have no good nature,” before taking $75 in exchange for letting the desperate Neal have his cab. Amid the impromptu auction, the schlubby Del Griffith (Candy) lumbers into the taxi with an enormous trunk he can barely handle, an object that will become the film’s central motif. As Neal chases after the cab in a fit of rage, Del offers a stupefied stare, unaware neither of the disruption he has caused nor the onslaught of misery he will unleash on his uptight foil for the next three days. Within the first seven minutes of screen time, Hughes establishes the film’s thematic preoccupations and offers a complete characterization of his two protagonists through an impressive combination of images and nuanced dialogue. Though seemingly a throwaway line from a minor character, “I have no good nature” exposes the central issue the film’s duo grapples with as freak snowstorms, badly managed rental-car services, and bus breakdowns further impede Neal’s plans to be home in time for Thanksgiving dinner with his family.
After carving out a cinematic niche as the reigning king of teen angst cinema with Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Hughes knew that Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was a risky departure from his brand that would dictate the future of his career. However, rather than hide behind the unbridled talents of Martin and Candy, he navigated the improvisational tendencies of his leads while staying true to a 145-page screenplay based on a hellacious trip from his own days as an advertising-copy writer. In the process, Hughes managed to pull off some of the best pratfalls of Candy’s filmography (Del driving with his knees while wresting himself from the parka caught on his carseat) and highlight Martin’s fish-out-of water persona as Neal views everything he encounters on his road trip, including a payphone and a couple making out on a bus with abject horror. At the same time, the film refuses to let its leads descend into stereotypes. Neal could have never risen above his germophobe gags, but Hughes disrupts Martin’s trademark affable persona by endowing his character with a mean streak whose 1-minute rant with 18 F-bombs to a rental-car clerk could rival even the most bitter unsolicited business review on a neighborhood Facebook page. Likewise, Candy’s buffoonish behavior has rescued many a middling movie from Who is Harry Crumb? to Armed and Dangerous. But rather than seek an endless string of belly laughs, Hughes takes full advantage of Candy’s dramatic chops in a way few directors understood by lingering on his face amid the chaos as regret washes over it. Enormous and garish, Del knows that, as he tells Neal, he is an easy target. But he also can’t help it. It’s the great tragedy of his life despite his natural gifts for selling shower-curtain rings and befriending the supporting cast of salt-of-the-earth oddballs from farmers and motel clerks to truck drivers who are really responsible for getting Neal home.
The film hits its most impressive moment as Neal berates the knuckle-cracking, mucus-plagued Del when the two are forced to share a seedy motel room in Kansas. What begins as a hilarious moment of odd-couple humor quickly escalates into Martin gleefully eviscerating every aspect of Del’s existence. In Neal’s view, Del’s stories are less interesting than the text of a vomit bag, his very presence worse than a daylong insurance seminar. As Martin’s vitriol accelerates, Hughes focuses most of his attention on Candy whose dead eyes begin to fill with tears while he tries to maintain some semblance of composure. When his rant comes to an end, Neal realizes the pain he is capable of inflicting. In other films, the scene would serve as a climax, but Hughes’s script is far more concerned with character than plot beats. Neal doesn’t immediately become a better person after witnessing the consequences of his elitist rage when it leaks beyond his class position. After all, the F-bomb rant that earned the film its “R” rating occurs twenty minutes later and the film goes on another hour. But it is the moment when he decides he could be a better person, a decision that allows the film’s end to earn its sentiment.
In her 2018 essay for The New Yorker, Hughes–breakout Molly Ringwald called for a reassessment of the director that made her career because of his films’ “problematic” representations of female characters and bro culture. While the essay was clearly an example of an actress whose only recent work is a nostalgia-bait guest role on teen soap Riverdale sullying the legacy of a deceased zeitgeist filmmaker to resuscitate her own career, it also disingenuously overlooks historical context to obscure the evergreen appeal and nuance of Hughes’s movies. More than any other American filmmaker, Hughes channeled the reality of teen life in a way that still echoes today. With Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, he shifted his gifts for social observation and complex characters to the adult world. Thirty-two years later, one can view the journey of Neal and Del as a statement that addresses the gulf between Midwest deplorables and those ensconced in their privileged urban bubble. During a Thanksgiving season in which local news outlets provide tips on how to uninvite the unvaccinated from dinner, the film serves as a rejoinder to the COVID obsessed that revels in its too-close-for comfort encounters. But Planes, Trains, and Automobiles’s ties to the contemporary have little to do with Hughes’s political concerns. In a movie about flawed humans trying to share some camaraderie during a season of gratitude, he created a timeless story about overcoming obstacles both internal and external and a cinematic achievement as unassuming as it is resonant.
Available for digital rental on all major platforms and airing on the AMC cable channel during Thanksgiving weekend. Check local listings.