At our house this week, as in so many houses, at so many family gatherings, we’re watching old favorites: movies that taste like comfort food. For example, Anne and I just revisited Stranger Than Fiction, the Marc Forster-directed comedy starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, and Dustin Hoffman, because we remember how much it made us laugh. I was delighted and surprised to discover that the film still moves me. Tidings of comfort and joy!

How does a movie come to qualify as comfort food? I’m sure it’s different for every family. But it seems like a comfort movie has to be, well… comforting, in some measure. And comfort might come from memories: We saw these movies with people we loved. We saw these movies at formative times. We saw these movies repeatedly, moved through their paces like churchgoers through a liturgy. They became inseparably associated from times and places that remain important to us.

The most popular comfort-food movies are accessible enough to welcome a wide range of viewers — those young and old, of different economic circumstances, of different cultures and traditions.

But the best comfort movies offer some kind of timeless truth that give us a sense that our hearts are being re-tuned, like weary musical instruments that have fallen dissonant from hard work or neglect.

The Sound of Music: the “comfort food” movie of my early childhood. [Image from the Fox trailer.]

When I was a kid, the only film that really qualified as comfort food in my family was The Sound of Music. We watched it over and over again. It promised us in a Cinderella sort of way that the poor would be lifted up, that those who grieve would be blessed with a restoration of what they had lost, that a family would sing together in harmony.

In the years since my holiday tradition expanded beyond my immediate family, other works of art became familiar favorites that played well for audiences of two or twelve. Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride. Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April. Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring.

This year, Anne and I revisited one that we’d each enjoyed repeatedly with friends even before we met. It’s a popular choice for a lot of families and communities. And now that I’ve seen it again, I hope it remains so.

We watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

I’m wrapping up 2022 with a “comfort food” review for several reasons:

I want to conclude this year’s posts with a celebratory note, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a celebratory movie. What am I celebrating? Well, Christmas, of course. But I’m also celebrating some good news that I’ve just received that was completely unexpected. It’s too early for me to “go public” with the news, though… so check back over the course of January and February, and I should have details.

Another reason: It’s time I gave some good attention to a movie that I know most moviegoers already know and love. I’ve been writing about movies for more than 30 years — and more than 20 at Looking Closer — I’ve grown more and more adventurous in my moviegoing, and I’ve learned to appreciate a wide range of cinema from around the world. My writing on lesser-known films — take my longtime personal favorite, 1987’s Wings of Desire, for instance — has sometimes triggered readers into accusing me of being pretentious and snobbish, as if it’s arrogant and insulting for a person to gain an appreciation of an art form that isn’t already popular. And, even recently, when I’ve highlighted the weaknesses of a popular movie — like, say, Top Gun: Maverick — I’ve been slammed for being an “elitist.”

I’ll bet those who find arrogance in my recommendations have passions of their own — subjects about which they know more than most, subjects about which they can speak with specificity and authority, subjects on which they are specialists. If I sit down to watch the World Cup with those who eat, sleep, and breathe soccer (they would say football, and they’d be right to do so), would they be guilty of snobbery they discussed aspects of the game that I, as a novice on the subject, don’t immediately understand? Of course not. They’ve studied the game. They have every right to have more advanced standards of judgment based on their deeper understanding of the game.

When you see more than a hundred movies a year from all over the world — as many professional film critics see more than 300 a year — you pick up new vocabulary. Your tastes grow and change. Your interests and preoccupations evolve. I’m not nearly the specialist on cinema that a lot of critics are, but there are movies I love now that would bore most of my friends and would have confounded me twenty years ago. I don’t write about obscure, abstract, arthouse films to show off — I write about them because I want others to discover and enjoy what I am discovering and enjoying, and I want to join conversations about those films already in progress.

What’s more — I want to learn from those who have explored parts of the cinematic world that I haven’t yet discovered. Their expertise doesn’t threaten or offend me; it excites me.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that some critics do deserve criticism for being pretentious and snobbish. Some do speak with arrogance and condescension. And if we turn up our noses at things that seem simpler to us now, we forget that we have grown into our appreciation of more demanding, complicated things. I hope sport fans wouldn’t sneer at me for not recognizing strategies in play during a great soccer match. And I hope I don’t sneer at anyone for being bored by Wings of Desire, or for liking commercially popular movies or even movies that I might consider to be lacking in some aspects of artistry.

As a matter of honesty, I hope I will always be willing to affirm what is good about “comfort food” movies, and to enjoy them with others no matter how familiar or popular they’ve become. After all, one of art’s most important functions is in bringing all kinds of people together into a shared experience for us to savor and discuss.

So, instead of wrapping up the year with a review of a challenging arthouse film that will make most moviegoers roll their eyes, I want to affirm my love of the kind of movie that brings big audiences together — either in a theater for a revival of an old favorite, or in living rooms around the world. My home-video library is full of popular Hollywood favorites headlined by by big-name celebrities. And I’m grateful anytime a movie makes me laugh until my face hurts.

It’s Christmas time. And the Christian tradition into which I have grown says that the famous “twelve days of Christmas” begin with Christmas, so I’m still celebrating. I’m spending time with friends and family. I’m enjoying feasts, big and small; singing carols, those I learned in childhood and those I’ve just discovered; and I’m watching movies, new favorites and some “comfort food.”

Here are my reflections on Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Del Griffith (John Candy) and Neal Page (Steve Martin) chill out in one of their various modes of transport. [Image from the Paramount Movies trailer.]

When I showed up for John Hughes’ buddy-comedy/road-movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles …

I was ready to get my 99-cents’ worth of the Steve Martin whose “Wild and Crazy Guy” and “Let’s Get Small” standup routines I had memorized, and whose idiot protagonist in Carl Reiner’s joyously absurd The Jerk (1979) had made me laugh over and over again. This was in 1987. I had just turned 17 and was reveling in my new freedom to meet friends after school at Village Theater, the 99-cent double-feature cinemas in my neighborhood. These were formative adventures: The children we have been start morphing into the adults we will become on those late-teen adventures, and while many boys my age were looking to athletes and pop stars and Hollywood icons of masculinity as role models, I was drawn to the personalities and screen presence of Steve Martin and David Letterman, sensing promise and possibility in how they had turned eccentricity into confidence and crowd-pleasing. When they met up for outrageous antics on Letterman’s Late Night show, I had an epiphany: I didn’t just think they were funny — I wanted to be both of them. 35 years later, I still catch myself quoting and imitating one or both of them almost daily, even in something as fleeting as a facial expression.

The previous December, John Landis’s comedy Three Amigos! had split its attention three ways between Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short. Their chemistry was inspired, but I remember being a bit disappointed that Martin Short’s manic flamboyance had made Martin seem almost like a straight man. But then, in June of ‘87, Steve Martin gave himself the most ambitious and satisfying exhibition of his range and talents in his very own adaptation of Cyrano de BergeracRoxanne (directed by Fred Shepisi), and he earned rave reviews across American media. He was funny, he was uninhibited, he was smart, and — this made quite an impression — he could write. I was thrilled to think that this all but guaranteed many years of onscreen outrageousness from the Master of Absurdity for Grown-Ups, and, what is more, a level of respect from discerning adults that justified my wanting to be like him.

Del and Neal beg for mercy from a motel manager. [Image from the Paramount Movies trailer.]

What I didn’t realize was that the wild and crazy Steve Martin I loved so much was already mellowing into a more restrained, more sophisticated mode of comedy — something more like Woody Allen or Albert Brooks. In Roxanne, he had expanded his performance to play a few notes of deep melancholy, passionate romance, and philosophical introspection, among the anticipated bursts that made my favorite arrow-through-the-head maniac recognizable behind that spectacular prosthetic nose. I didn’t anticipate, and would not have been pleased to learn, that these inclinations toward seriousness would mark the direction he would go in the next decade of his career.

So it was disorienting when, in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I was introduced to Steve Martin the Straight Man. Oh, sure — anybody who’s seen the movie can point to a few memorable occasions in which his character explodes into his signature histrionics — this time in fits of hilarious rage. But those moments build up over long sequences of scowling, simmering, and slow-cooker cantankerousness. Playing the part of Neal Page, Martin seems intent on convincing us that he can play a normal guy, and might even actually be one. Neal’s an advertising agent in a suit with a briefcase, and he just wants to get home to his pretty wife and his picture-perfect kids. The obstacles in his path become the challenges, then, that start breaking down Neal the Family Man who does not interest us and threatening to release Neal the Monster — the freakshow we’ve really come to see.

Pushed to the end of his patience, Neal prepares to “break up” with his traveling companion. [Image from the Paramount Movies trailer.]

What I hadn’t come to see, and what I got instead of the Wild and Crazy Guy, was a performance from another actor that remains the most rewarding aspect of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. As Steve Martin’s Neal deals with one setback after another in his quest to get home — an obstacle course that may have been the template for Midnight Run with Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin two years later — he is forced to deal with John Candy’s Del Griffith, a traveling salesman whose girth is like a physical representation of his off-putting gregariousness. Played by Candy at the very peak of his formidable powers, Del is the kind of guy who, in your worst nightmare, you’re stuck sitting beside on a crowded flight for six hours. His cringe-worthy jokes, his obnoxious behavior (removing socks and shoes on the flight to massage his smelly feet), his flagrant recklessness (driving without ever looking at the road): these things are enough to drive anyone over the edge, or, in this case, directly into oncoming traffic. And if you think that sounds bad, wait until you see what Neal has to deal with when he and Del are forced to share a hotel room.

My frustrations at the lack of seeing what I’d paid to see — Steve Martin unchained and unhinged — slowly subsided as I reflected on the film and realized that Neal was naming something in me: a weakness that still afflicts me to this day. He was holding up a mirror to a combination of self-interest, impatience, and ungraciousness that can take a toxic hold on our hearts as we move about our days in bubbles of our own making and insulate ourselves against encounters with our neighbors that might ask us to living more humbly, more generously. Every single time we see Del Griffith being Del Griffith, we in the audience feel trapped in a prison cell with Neal. And Steve Martin makes Neal someone we can relate to, someone trying to maintain his composure as his boundaries are challenged. Even better, he’s someone who allows us to vicariously experience what it’s like to unleash our bottled up frustration. There’s something cathartic in watching Neal’s volcanic eruptions when Del pushes him too far. We laugh because we have all been trapped in those situations — those planes, those trains, those cars — and we’ve all wished we had permission to lash out.

“You’re messing with the wrong guy!” Neal rages against rental-car-company incompetence. [Image from the Paramount Movies trailer.]

And that’s when this simple comedy, which often goes for the easiest joke, and is designed to appeal to large audiences without asking too much of them, sneaks up on us with something truly valuable: In the aforementioned hotel room scene, Hughes writes a scene for Neal that lets his glorious temper tantrum run a little too long. We’re laughing, but that laughter becomes complicated because the camera stares unflinchingly at Neal’s rage to a point that we wonder when he’s going to stop. When Neal stops to take a breath, his face contorted in contempt, Hughes then directs the camera’s attention — and, thus, ours — to the expansive canvas of Del’s unfiltered expression. He’s an open wound. And we cannot look away. There’s no doubt about what Del is feeling. He is suddenly revealed as a three-dimensional human being, one teetering on the precipice of an abyss that has been carved deep by loneliness and suffering. What’s more, Del reveals that he is more complicated than just a victim: On the path of his hardships and failures, he has experienced grace. The true love of his wife Marie has given him something to hold onto in those hard moments.

Thus, the obvious flaws in Del’s character become like a magnet for drawing out and exposing the flaws in Neal’s character. And the revelation of Neal’s ugliness enables us to glimpse goodness in Del. A new question emerges: If Del is capable of demonstrating strength in the face of hardship, what about Neal? Who is the bigger problem in this picture?

Neal pays the price of sharing a bathroom with Del Griffith. [Image from the Paramount Movies trailer.]

Hughes, as the wise and clever god of their world, devises circumstances in which these two will be forced to reckon with those weaknesses and become more fully human in each other’s company. At the same time, our initial annoyance with, laughter at, and mockery of Del exposes in us a lack that alarms us when we see it in Neal. If we’ve grown up as a target of bullying or been scarred by other traumas like those that Del eventually reveals, perhaps we find points of connection with him as well.

Here’s a movie that, while unapologetic in its mainstream crowd-pleasing and its broad-stroke storytelling, still fulfills what Roger Ebert so famously defined as the most significant promise of cinema: it “generates empathy.”

Making this predictable and popular choice to watch over the Christmas holiday break from school here in 2022, I’m surprised by how much affection I still have for this movie, scene after scene. Yes, there are jokes that haven’t aged well and that demonstrate that artists and audiences alike have become wiser and more compassionate. But overall, it remains as solid as any mainstream-crowd-pleaser comedy the ’80s ever produced. I haven’t seen it in at least 15 years, and yet I find myself reciting every line like I’ve been watching it once a month since it opened.

What happens between Neal and Del will stay between Neal and Del — at least, Neal sure hopes so. [Image from the Paramount Movies trailer.]

I also find it sobering how badly audiences need movies like this now — and how important it is for us to talk about them afterward. The kinds of lashing out that we see in Neal’s meltdowns — the heartless sneering and hateful ranting — seemed so obviously horrible to me as a teenager in the ‘80s. But now I recognize in Neal’s tantrums, which reveal the diseased condition of his heart, qualities that are celebrated and promoted in American politics. “Leaders” who spew wrath and hatred like Neal’s into microphones from campaign platforms are now rewarded for championing a lack of empathy. This is a strategy for cultivating a culture of cruelty, division, and ultimately self-destruction. The golden rule, the Gospel of “Love your neighbor as yourself” — these things are now dismissed as pathetic, the ethics of weakness, not strengths.

I hope Planes, Trains and Automobiles will continue to be treated as a “holiday classic.” Where I once looked at it as a fun but slight entertainment, I now see it as necessary a story for the big screen as A Christmas Carol, one that, thanks to the starkly defined caricatures provided by Straight Man Steve Martin and Butt-of-the-Jokes John Candy, offers us both a hard diagnosis for what ails us and a glimpse of a possible cure.

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