In the dark: Leader movie reviews

‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ remains the best Thanksgiving film ever

Posted 11/27/19

Over the years, Thanksgiving has become prone to seemingly contradictory misfortunes.

Not only has it long suffered in silence as the glossed-over holiday on the calendar, between Halloween and …

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In the dark: Leader movie reviews

‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ remains the best Thanksgiving film ever

Posted

Over the years, Thanksgiving has become prone to seemingly contradictory misfortunes.

Not only has it long suffered in silence as the glossed-over holiday on the calendar, between Halloween and Christmas, but it’s also become a surprisingly contentious occasion.

The supposed origins of Thanksgiving have recently received some critical cultural reevaluations, at the same time that long-removed relatives have begun to question the wisdom of bringing together increasingly politically polarized family members so soon after the fall elections.

But if there’s one truth that everyone should be able to agree upon, it’s that John Hughes’ 1987 “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is the best Thanksgiving movie ever, even considering the relative paucity of films devoted to that holiday.

Forget the historically questionable grade-school fables of “Pilgrims and Indians,” because “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” focuses on the one experience that just about everyone can relate to, and the one reason everyone should be able to celebrate the holiday — getting back home in time to share a nice meal with the ones you love, and being grateful to have those people in your life.

It would have been so easy for Hughes to slap a sentimental message onto the end of a series of slapstick travel gags, but Hughes infused his characters’ comical misadventures with genuine pathos throughout the film, as finicky advertising executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) and outwardly boorish traveling salesman Del Griffith (John Candy) repeatedly cross paths on their way from New York City to Chicago, where we’re told their respective families anxiously await their returns.

By 1987, Martin was still known mostly as the sort of “Wild and Crazy Guy” he’d played on Saturday Night Live, even though he’d already revealed his softer side in 1981’s “Pennies From Heaven,” “The Lonely Guy” and “All of Me” in 1984, and “Roxanne” earlier in the same year that “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” was released. But his role as Neal Page was the first to cast him as a fastidious Felix Unger straight man, and it’s a measure of his generosity as a performer that he worked so collaboratively with Candy, to create such an authentic rhythm of give and take between their characters.

And it was Candy who became the breakout star of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Hughes had given a big boost to Candy’s film career by casting him as a security guard in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in 1983, and while Candy mostly played members of ensemble casts, or sidekicks to the main stars of his movies until 1987, he did headline “Summer Rental” in 1985, and “Armed and Dangerous” in 1986. Still, it was clear that Hughes saw something more in Candy when he cast him as Del Griffith, a role that required an unexpected depth and sensitivity beneath that loud slob exterior.

Hughes’ gamble paid off beyond what anyone could have expected. The two most emotionally devastating moments in this movie are delivered almost singlehandedly by Candy, who comes across as so earnestly wounded that you immediately want to give him a bear hug and welcome him into your home. The secret to Candy’s appeal was that even his most clumsy or unapologetically crass characters were never, ever cruel, and his biggest belly-laughs were so obviously animated by the huge heart beating inside his barrel-sized chest.

Which is not to say that this film doesn’t also serve up some solid laughs. In the decades before CGI, live-action film directors who wanted to recreate the unreal aesthetic of cartoon action sequences had to work hard at it, and Hughes crafted some of the funniest scenes ever set to film in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” by temporarily transforming Martin and Candy into live-action cartoons.

Without spoiling it for those who have yet to watch it, never has the warning “You’re going the wrong way!” been so hilariously ominous.

And with two leads who are such overwhelming onscreen presences, one could be forgiven for overlooking the film’s fine cast of supporting bit-players, from Michael McKean as a state trooper, and Kevin Bacon as a guy who out-hustles Martin in catching a cab, to the drolly deadpan Ben Stein (“Bueller? Bueller?”) as an airport representative, and the priceless Edie McClurg, in full Midwestern hausfrau mode, who improvised all her lines as a car rental clerk (yes, including her final words to Martin).

So, as you settle into your post-dinner turkey coma, cue up “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” be prepared to laugh hard enough that you’ll have trouble breathing, and as soon as you hear the instrumental track from the Dream Academy’s “Power to Believe” in the background, that is Hughes warning you that you’re about to cry.

Before I head out for Thanksgiving dinner with my own family, I should send thanks to alert reader Page Edmunds, who pointed out an error in my review of “Ford v Ferrari,” because Henry Ford II was the grandson of the original Henry Ford, not his son, Edsel Ford, for whom the failed car brand was named.

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