“You’re going the wrong way!” Thankfulness in Planes, Trains and Automobiles

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A few years ago a friend of ours invited us to our first Thanksgiving meal, and I immediately fell in love with it. I mean, any culture which takes sweet potato, adds marshmallows and maple syrup, and then has the chutzpah to serve this up as part of the main course is on an epic flavour train to gastronomic glory in my book.

Another thing I love about Thanksgiving is the John Hughes road-movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987). If you’ve not seen it, the plot is pretty simple: Steve Martin plays family man Neal, desperately trying to get home for Thanksgiving when freak weather disrupts his travel plans, and he falls in with John Candy’s loveable loser Del on a cross-country journey home. Neal is all acerbic wit and biting sarcasm; Del bawdy, loud and vulnerable. Odd couple pairings are a standard buddy-movie trope, but the natural chemistry here is like comedy lightning in a bottle.

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The film has many, many classic set pieces. Like when the men share a bed and wake up spooning (“Where’s your other hand?”/  “Between two pillows…” / “Those aren’t pillows!”). Or where Del sends their car hurtling between two oncoming lorries amid a shower of sparks. But the marrow – the real heart of the movie – is found in the quieter moments.

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You see, in my view, comedy is fundamentally about truth. I know that sounds pretentious, but hear me out. Great comedy – I mean, really great, timeless comedy – isn’t just about cheap laughs. It holds a mirror up, peels back the layers. And this is precisely what PTA does so well.

There’s a scene early on where Neal first loses his temper with Del, and rips into him in a hilarious but increasingly nasty tirade. As Neal rants on, Del’s face slowly crumples, and we are left feeling oddly complicit. In this one scene the film performs a stunning volte-face as we go from laughter, to guilt, to empathy.

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This isn’t a singular moment. Amongst the farce and endlessly quotable dialogue, there is a strong undercurrent of emotional resonance. This is a world that is conspiring against Neal and Del (and who hasn’t felt like that at times?), and where sometimes, behind the biggest laughs, are people with broken hearts.

But above all, this is about Neal making his journey home, from cynicism to thankfulness.  That’s the beauty – and the truth – of PTA. It’s really, really funny: but it’s also a journey towards thankfulness that we all need to take sometimes, even (or especially) in the midst of personal hardship and difficulty. And I for one couldn’t ask for better company to have on the way.

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Anyway, better go. I think those sweet potatoes need a bit more syrup, and frankly that egg nog isn’t going to drink itself. So happy Thanksgiving everyone, whatever life’s throwing at you right now.

Published by Tim Coleman

Film critic. Screenwriter. Academic.

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