It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…in fact, it began to look a lot like Christmas already the moment Halloween had passed. A sad symptom of commercialism, this fact bothers me most when it comes to movies–we’re well into “holiday” movie season by now, but what exactly does that mean?
It’s a question I’ve explored on my own blog before, so I won’t dwell too much on it here, but by paying homage to one of my favorite holiday movies–John Hughes’ 1987 film, Planes, Trains and Automobiles–the question is somewhat unavoidable. Because, of course, this film takes revolves around Thanksgiving, not Christmas.
The film stars Steve Martin and the late, great John Candy as two strangers who, due to a series of preposterous, serendipitous events, find themselves traveling home for the holiday together. From car rentals to cramped hotel rooms, this is one of those comedies where everything goes wrong, and the laughs and cringes come in equal measure from the ridiculousness of it all. It’s an unrelentingly funny but brutal buddy movie, if you’d consider these men to be buddies, that is. Martin is an uptight and serious working family man while Candy is an obnoxiously friendly, buffoonish man who actually has no family to go home to. Sorry for the nearly 30 year spoiler, but it’s also a John Hughes movie, so add that iconic ’80s smarmy charm to a holiday setting, and you can probably guess that the film ends happily, with Candy joining Martin’s family for a nice, warm Thanksgiving dinner.
For all intents and purposes, this film could be set during Christmas, if it wanted to be–there’s snow, but more importantly there’s the moral and message at the heart of the film: family and being with the ones that you love when it seems to matter most. It’s cheesy and sentimental but only comes through at the end–up until then it’s a harmless comedy of errors. But, it’s truly that ending that forms the stakes of the film, making all the errors that much more comical and frustrating in the moment. Besides, there are plenty of Christmas movies we’ve gotten in recent years that really forsake those themes in service of broad comedy anyway, and in my opinion, Santa and slapstick do not a holiday movie make. There’s a delicate formula that works when it works, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles works almost perfectly–and yet, it’s set over Thanksgiving.
I know I seem hung up on this. I merely think it’s interesting that the same themes and components that make a Christmas movie successful are found tenfold in this, a “Thanksgiving” movie, deserving of air-quotes because there really are so few, if any others. I guess it doesn’t matter too much, considering Thanksgiving is a loaded holiday, anyway, whereas Christmas is, underneath all the commercialization, still meant to be a religiously wholesome holiday. Thanksgiving, though? People like to point out how pointless and kind of evil it is to celebrate our taking of Native Americans’ land by eating turkey and pumpkin pie, so why make a film so specifically tied to those aspects of it? And what Free Birds (2013) tried certainly failed in those respects–too specific, it seems, to have worked. Maybe people have always approached Thanksgiving the same way they do Christmas; they’re ready for movies that reflect the overall season, and it’s simply easier and more typical to approach the season with Christmas on the mind over Thanksgiving. And it seems that holiday movies reflect that and take the same approach. But, Planes, Trains and Automobiles will always remain a hilarious and heartfelt film filled with hijinx, fit for viewing around Thanksgiving, Christmas or anytime, really. I just hope I’m not alone in loving this movie for what it is and that it isn’t forgotten or marginalized within some kind of pantheon of holiday movies that is logically devoid of other Thanksgiving-set fare.