I very nearly turned this Thursday Theater article into a list of 10 Thanksgiving movies for you to check out, but after some deliberation I realized that I could only cobble together 3 movies that were both actually relevant to the holiday and passable enough to recommend (if you’re curious, the other 2 movies are the movie version of Alice’s Restaurant and By the Light of the Silvery Moon).
In truth, I probably should have seen this coming, since there are fewer than 10 Christmas movies which meet both criteria for me. So, instead, I’m cutting out the passable or kitsch options and focusing on recommending the one movie which I feel deserves to be associated with the holiday in perpetuity: John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
In between the wild successes of, beforehand, his brat pack films and Ferris Bueller and, afterward, the first two Home Alone films, one of John Hughes’ directorial projects was an odd-couple travel movie called Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The movie, like most great family films, would be an exercise in didactic moralizing if not for the sincerity of its presentation and the humility of its execution. As such, I think watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles could stand alongside listening to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” as one of the few worthwhile contemporary additions to the Thanksgiving tradition schema.
The film centers on a frustrated cynic, played by Steve Martin, and a grating optimist, played by John Candy, who are repeatedly thrust together in their efforts to make it to Chicago in time for their respective Thanksgiving dinners. The set-up makes the plot development as transparently predictable as possible, but the movie, like works in the mystery genre, obtains its interest from the audience’s curiosity concerning how that endpoint is reached. In literary theory, this story motivation structure is known as the hermeneutic code.
Whereas many similar movies try to cram in and play up as many gimmicks and antics as possible, Planes, Trains and Automobiles restricts itself to what is needed for its plot and character development, only straining credulity through its abundant coincidental plot points. This singularity and straightforwardness of vision aids the film; its comedic aspects are grounded by its emotional core, and its dramatic moments are lightened by its sense of humor.
The real strength of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, of course, is the quality of the performances from the two actors carrying the feature. Steve Martin plays a character whose type he has been playing since early in his career, and which he mastered. The most laudable work here, though, is the performance by John Candy, who takes what is essentially an obtuse, buffoonish character and (with help from Hughes’ writing) gives him the touches of humanity that make him endearing. These details mesh together with the audience’s implicit initial bond with Martin’s character to make the film’s twists truly effective.
Every holiday has a certain thematic flavor, and Thanksgiving’s emphases on acknowledging one’s advantages and on family as community serve as the perfect backdrop for this story. I can easily imagine a version of this movie where the endpoint is a different holiday, but I would contend that such a change would weaken the film. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is an intermittently funny film, but it is the way that it evokes pathos and stresses community that makes it worthy of being a Thanksgiving classic.
You may have begun getting the impression, through some of the other entries in this series, that I am opposed to movies if they do not offer a compelling philosophical experience. But that’s a mistaken impression; I consider any movie to have a claim at greatness if only it meets whatever goals it seems to set itself, and does so without noticeable and distracting flaws. If a movie attempts to present a philosophical experience, and yet fails, that is a much worse movie than one that tries to make the audience laugh or empathize, and succeeds. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is not a deep movie, and it’s not a challenging movie. What it offers is a simple encapsulation of an emotional experience, executed with sincerity and quality.
A Thanksgiving Given: