Planes, Trains, and Automobiles exaggerates the ordeal in service of laughs, but it’s only funny because we recognize the kernel of truth: holiday travel sucks. It’s the single worst part of the deal. Which is why we silently nod when Neal finally breaks and goes on his f-bomb laced diatribe.
And then there’s the awkward sleeping arrangements when you arrive at your destination. No matter how much it costs, a mattress you inflate like a pool raft is not meant for adults. Still, it’s better than sharing a twin with a sweaty stranger and waking up to him spooning you and your pillows.
2. The Amazing One-Liners
Strictly speaking, being funny doesn’t make a movie more of a holiday film. But great movies need something other than the occasion itself to put them over the top. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles would work as straight drama, but the comedic elements elevate the stakes while also acting as palate cleansers. We also naturally like people who make us laugh. Without the jokes, Neal would just be an up-tight jerk. Even with them, Del can be pretty annoying. The situational comedy helps us empathize with these forlorn travelers. But the things Neal and Del say and do make us love them.
We silently cheer when Del gets comfortable enough with Neal to rib him good-naturedly while the men are driving to Chicago. “You play with your balls a lot. Larry Bird doesn’t do as much ball-handling in one night as you do in one hour.” Hilarious and also a sneaky bit of character-building (next time you watch the film, see if you can spot Neal playing pocket pool). But the single best line of the film belongs to Neal, who delivers this all-timer after being stranded in a rental car lot. “If I wanted a joke, I’d follow you into the john and watch you take a leak.”
3. The Nostalgia for Home at the Holidays
Yes, holiday travel sucks. But there’s a reason we willingly subject ourselves to it. It’s the wistful nostalgia Perry Como sings of in “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays.” Suddenly and practically all at once, we would do almost anything to be home again, surrounded by our loved ones, and maybe eating some homemade pumpkin pie.
More than any other holiday film, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is about nostalgia for home, and how home seems so much sweeter the further away we are. Neal only endures all the travel shenanigans because he’s so desperate to reach the smiling faces at the end of this meandering yellow brick road.