Such are my grammar instincts that when I write the title of today’s film, Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), I have to fight my urge to add the Oxford comma. This is not intended to be a treatise on the proper place to put the mark meant to denote pauses in sentences or separate lists. Yet, my annoyance does not end with this particular grammatical tick. In looking up Christmas movies, this film came up. I had never seen it before, and was only recently reminded of its existence when it was mentioned by my podcast partner in a recent episode of Down and Out Reviews. Isaac did say it was a Thanksgiving film, but when I settled upon it the other day, I hoped that it would cover Christmas, too. My discontent is not about the subject matter, necessarily. There should be more Thanksgiving movies. Instead, it is about the way in which our society increasingly conflates Christmas and Thanksgiving into what this Catholic sees as that confounding and nebulous term known as “the holidays.” I did a search for Christmas movies and got a Thanksgiving one. Had I known what I was in for, or just took Isaac at his word, I would have watched something else. Lesson learned.
Neal Page (Steve Martin) is stuck in New York City at an advertising meeting, and is willing to take Planes, Trains and Automobiles in order to return to his family in time for Thanksgiving. He has his plane ticket booked, but the minutes are counting down rapidly to when he is supposed to be at the airport for his flight back to Chicago. When he finally gets out of the conference, it is rush hour and open taxis are thin on the street. When he finally finds one and is about to get in after bribing a businessman, it is taken by Del Griffith (John Candy). Neal is forced to find an alternative way to LaGuardia, though he manages to make it slightly before his appointed departure. That is the good news. The bad news is that there is a blizzard currently disrupting air travel in and out of Chicago. This results in a delay, and while waiting, he ends up sitting next to Del. Neal is annoyed, and all he wants is to get home. Del attempts to converse with him, being the loquacious type, but is rebuffed at every turn. When their plane finally boards, he is horrified to discover that a mix-up with his first-class ticket results in him being placed in coach next to Del. The parade of misfortune is only beginning. Because of the weather, their plane is diverted to Wichita, Kansas, and there are no more flights to Chicago, forcing them to spend the night. Being so close to Thanksgiving, there are seemingly no available hotel rooms. One person who had more success is Del, and the traveling shower curtain ring salesman convinces a reluctant Neal to share the room with him. That is not the only thing they must share, for the room only has one bed. After a restless night, Neal attempts once more to separate from Del, only to discover that the only next viable option is to find a train to Chicago. Hope for peace for Neal arrives in the form of him securing seats in different railcars for the trip to Chicago. The prospects of a Del-free ride to the Windy City are dashed when the locomotive breaks down and they are forced to trudge to the nearest town. Of course, Del is alongside, and they sit next to each other on a bus bound for St. Louis. They have an argument over lunch in St. Louis, and Neal once more vows to part company. Unsurprisingly, the car he attempts to rent does not appear where it is supposed to be. When he is kicked out of the rental agency’s office when his rage bubbles over, Del is there to pick him up. With Del doing the majority of the driving, he manages to drive the wrong way on the interstate, and flick a cigarette butt into the back seat that causes a fire, both instances nearly killing them. Remarkably, the car is still drivable, and they make it to a hotel where Neal is able to barter for a room, the rest of his stuff having gone up in the fire. Because of all the missteps along the way, at first Neal forces Del to stay outside in the car in the snow. However, seeing the pathetic figure freezing in the ruined automobile, he tells Del to come inside, and they commiserate. The next day, they abandon their wrecked rental car and are able to hitch a ride on a long-haul truck headed for Chicago. Once inside the city, Del and Neal finally part company on an El platform, and Neal watches Del’s lonely figure as the train pulls away. Feeling remorseful, Neal goes back. When they meet, Del explains that he does not have a home to return to, and that he had been on the road since his wife died eight years previously. Neal then invites Del to Thanksgiving dinner, and the two new friends share the holiday.
When thinking about Planes, Trains and Automobiles from a Catholic perspective, it reminds me of Matthew Chapter 18:21-22. Peter approaches Jesus and asks how many times he should forgive his brother. Jesus replies with a seemingly specific number, seventy-seven. Biblically speaking, the number seven represents completeness. Hence, you are not meant to reprieve those who wrong you precisely that many instances, and no more. Instead, you are supposed to forgive them at every occasion. Today’s film is a clinic in this virtue. In recounting the plot, I glossed over the items that Neal loses as a result of Del’s well-meaning incompetence. His credit card is stolen, a thief breaks into their first hotel room and takes all his cash, his briefcase is destroyed, his suit is ruined, and what is left of his minimal amount of items goes up in the car blaze. Yet, it is clear to Neal, eventually, that Del has been living with misfortune for much longer than the few days’ worth of travel headaches with which he had been dealing. That is why Neal invites Del to Thanksgiving dinner. Interestingly, earlier in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, there is the parable of the Lost Sheep. I see that as an apt title for Del, particularly in light of his wanderings following the death of his wife. In the parable, Jesus tells His disciples that there is more rejoicing in Heaven when that wandering soul returns than for the others that had stayed put. You can see that rejoicing in the Page family as Del and Neal finally arrive.
Even if Planes, Trains and Automobiles is not a Christmas movie, it speaks to the kind of spirit that Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen) so fervently wanted the other Whos to feel in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000). No matter what you call them, the holidays are about being with family. Neal feels that desire, and the relief evident on his face when he finally makes it says all you need to know about the meaning behind the film. Weirdly, the film is rated R, though I do not recall anything too objectionable in it. Consider this a solid recommendation.