This past weekend, my family watched the John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) like we do every Thanksgiving. This movie works so well because the two main characters, played by Steve Martin and John Candy, subvert stereotypes that are often present in run-of-the-mill comedies. Martin’s character, Neal Page, is a twist on the workaholic dad character so common in 1980s and 90s family comedies. Unlike most of those characters, Neal desperately wants to get home to his family, but can’t because of a relentless series of logistical mishaps. He also embodies the tightly-wound neurotic character type, but whereas that type often appears as an antagonist or as merely the butt of unkind humor, Neal, as the point of view character of the film, is utterly sympathetic. Candy’s character, Del Griffith, (SPOILER ALERT–but seriously, you’ve had 31 years to see this movie) is a homeless widower, a character who might be a tiresomely pathetic victim in a lesser movie, but he’s also that annoying guy who sits next to you on an airplane and talks your ear off. But as we, through Neal, get to know Del, we are led into sympathy with him as well, and we come to understand that he talks because he’s lonely. He is vulnerable not only because he is a homeless widower but also because he is a traveling salesman–someone who, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, survives by the good will of others–but he is also incredibly savvy and resilient.
I realized this year, more than ever before, how much I relate to Neal Page, especially in his very physical and verbal displays of frustration. I really see myself in the scene where he throws an almost acrobatic tantrum–and literally throws his car rental agreement–in the remote parking lot where he gets stranded after he gets dropped off at the alleged parking space of a rental car that doesn’t exist. Co-workers probably think Neal is a calm, mild-mannered guy, but he has high standards for himself, other people, and the universe at large, and when those standards aren’t met, he doesn’t know what to do. So he explodes, and sometimes he hurts people. I can relate, so very much. (I gave a major character in the zombie apocalypse story I just finished writing, Adrian Fallon, this same flaw. I also realized after watching the movie on Friday how much the road trip elements of my story had been influenced by Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.)
I think nearly everyone can relate to Neal–who, again, is the character through whom we experience the story–in one respect. The whole way through the film, we’ve been imagining, along with Neal, these idyllic scenes of what his family must be doing at home. Through him, we’ve experienced the gradual stripping away of comforts he has always taken for granted–money, transportation, warmth, privacy, security. (These are things, by the way, that Del, a perpetual traveler, cannot take for granted. I think the heavy trunk he carries around represents the burden of the constant stress of the road.) By the end, we, along with Neal, want nothing more than to go home, take a shower, eat Thanksgiving dinner, and go to bed. Yet (spoiler again) Neal makes the radical decision to turn around and invite Del to share Thanksgiving, one of the most intimate holidays, with his family. There’s a lot of talk today in the blogosphere, the publishing industry, churches, etc. about “radical hospitality.” Planes, Trains, and Automobiles shows us, profoundly, that tired, frustrated, flawed people are the ones who can best show such hospitality.