Tom Jolliffe takes a look back at Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the definitive Thanksgiving film…
Thanksgiving is upon our American cousins. Just in case any of you celebrating with a nicely bronzed Turkey are wondering about the definitive film accompaniment for such a day, then a Brit is here, with his monocle on, cup of tea and plate of fish and chips to tell you.
Thanksgiving themed films aren’t hugely common. Let’s face it, Halloween and Christmas takes all the attention, and that reflective day in the middle is often overlooked in cinema. Furthermore, the amount of good ones is really slim indeed. The Ice Storm, Hannah and Her Sisters, Son-In-Law (why cinema lost interest in Pauly Shore so quick, I’ll never fully understand). Look, I’ll cut right to the chase. The ultimate Thanksgiving film is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
You can of course watch it any time of the year. It’s only recently I’ve begun watching it during Thanksgiving season. Previously, because I’m a stuttering, bumbling Englishman (somewhere between Hugh Grant and Mr Bean) I don’t technically celebrate the season, but I’ve now begun timing my yearly celebratory Planes, Trains viewing for late November. It would generally have been watched around the Christmas season, but placing it nicely in November allows me to have more time in the festive period to schedule Die Hard, Home Alone and Bad Santa (among others).
You could go the Woody Allen or Ang Lee route, but the taut emotional repression and Bergman-esque deconstructions of human fallibility are probably a bit much post Turkey and Sweet Tater pie. You need something light and something entertaining, with a bit of heart. Comedies that can successfully balance physical comedy, one-liner comedy, within a gripping journey, with some genuine heartfelt moments are few and far between, almost non-existent. Planes, Trains is just that though. It’s not just hilarious, it’s touching and it’s one of the most infinitely repeatable films ever made.
The comedy teaming of Steve Martin and John Candy is inspired. Few comedic actors projected such amiability and warmth as Candy. He was a game goof-ball but always effortlessly likeable, and unpredictably funny. His penchant for going off script in certain films always added an often hilarious (and sometimes random) touch of brilliance. One such aside in Home Alone (about leaving his daughter behind somewhere in a bumbling attempt to sympathise with Kevin McCallister’s desperate mother) allowed him to almost steal the film in the two short scenes he had.
Meanwhile, Martin is also inspired. Despite his comedic talents, you look back over his CV, and whilst it’s laced with great roles, it also has an inconsistency (especially in the 90’s onward) that belies those abilities. He’s probably never been better than he was here. Partly because he has to play the straight man, as opposed to some of his other iconic roles where he plays the buffoon or the maniac. His reactions opposite Candy are priceless, interlaced with occasional bursts of brilliant physical comedy.
Like a comfy pair of shoes, the film has remained timeless, and aside from the two fantastic leads, there’s a selection of brilliant drawn characters the pair encounter on their journey from the rosy cheeked car rental desk clerk, to Gus the yokel, to a great Kevin Bacon cameo. Director John Hughes had a gift for the silly, for the comedically inspired, but always with an underlying emotional core, and his formula was near perfected here.
If I was lying I’d say the end freeze frame shot of Candy didn’t affect me almost every viewing. Truthfully though, it does. In part it’s the journey within the film that Candy and Martin take, and the reveals we learn along the way. It’s about what Candy unearths from the cold exterior of the workaholic Martin and how that draws a feeling of clarity within Martin. There’s a guy who is providing financial stability for his family, at the expense of emotional bonding, time and closeness. He meets a guy who lost his only family (his wife) and has been rolling stoning his way through life since, with a positive outlook, but always perpetually trying to stay a step ahead of loneliness… Sorry, give me a moment…
Every great comedy needs memorable moments of inspired brilliance. That could be memorable lines or physical gags, and this has them both in abundance. Candy and Martin reluctantly sharing a motel bed in particular still pains me it’s so funny (‘Those aren’t pillows!’). Despite seeing the film so often, it never loses its impact.
So there we have it. Your Thanksgiving has just been made all the better thanks to this reminder. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is THE film to watch this week.
What’s your favourite Thanksgiving film? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.