The Unhappy Wanderer: Planes, Trains and Automobiles and the True Spirit of Thanksgiving

Celebrating the true spirit of Thanksgiving with a comedy masterclass

There’s a memorable scene in The Sopranos in which Tony vents his frustrations about ‘The Happy Wanderer’. Tony hates those people, the kind who refuse to see the world in a cynical light and instead walk around whistling with a clear conscience and a stupid smile on their face. John Candy’s irrepressible Del Griffith — the unlikely hero of John Hughes’ greatest movie — is the personification of ‘The Happy Wanderer’, a man who accepts the burdens of modern-day life with impervious good cheer. A far cry from the denizens of America’s billion-footed beast, Del is kind, helpful and sincere. With him, what you see is what you get.

Steve’s Martin’s Neal Page also hates those people, the kind whose every word comes straight out of the good citizen manual. Worlds apart from the cheery, blue-collar Griffith, he works in advertising in the big city and resents having to spend time away from his family. He sits in the boardroom for hours on end and his worse fear lies in becoming just another cardboard drone. Page relies on his acerbic wit to get him through the days. He believes that his ability to criticise insulates him from becoming as trite and predictable as someone like Griffith, but in the end the two of them have much in common. They simply have different ways of coping.


It is these differences and similarities which make Del and Neal such a wonderful comedy duo, the kind who can slip into the tried-and-tested odd couple formula and still make it interesting. Hughes’ razor-sharp screenplay, tapping into the universal annoyances of a globalised world, gives our stars plenty to kick-out against, but it is our affection for two of comedies shining lights that make Planes, Trains and Automobiles such a timeless classic. Essentially, the two actors play themselves, and the characters and relationships are much richer for it. Hughes, a man renown for understanding his cast and utilizing their real-life strengths and weaknesses, is essential in allowing Martin and Candy to reach their full potential. In reality, Martin was that neurotic, semi-patronising rebel with a killer streak, and Neal allows him to let rip unreservedly. He is heartless, cynical, utterly free from restraint, but we love him for it. He says the things we’re afraid to.

As for Candy, he was the big, cuddly bundle of joy we all paid to see. He was also a known depressive before a tragically premature death at 44, a compulsive personality who never felt he could live up to the expectation of his fans. Hughes understood this, and he channels Candy’s insecurities to help forge the most heartwarming performance of his career. The spotlight would cost Candy everything, his very public battle with obesity one of Hollywood’s cruellest tragedies, but in Trains, Planes and Automobiles Hughes captures the true essence of one of the industry’s finest talents, and the very real person living behind the laughter.

Del: You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you… but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. Well, you think what you want about me; I’m not changing. I like… I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.

Del is the fictional manifestation of Candy’s most self-destructive insecurities, which is why we empathise with his character so strongly. He is one of those unfortunate souls who cannot help but annoy those around him. He is fine in small doses — a fact that his many superficial relationships as a travelling curtain ring salesman can attest to — but beyond those niceties he will wear you down to a barely visible nub with his plethora of bad habits and ceaseless anecdotes. Griffith is aware of his own grating nature and compensates by doing everything humanly possible to remain decent, but when it comes to a debilitating klutz like Del, for most people being decent just isn’t enough.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles car

Neal’s nightmare begins when Griffith accidentally steals his cab as he races to the airport to make it home in time for Thanksgiving, a pure accident that sparks an unstoppable avalanche of misfortune. You get the sense that Neal fears the worst even before he crosses paths with his future nemesis. He hates the world and it hates him and in reality he makes his own bad luck. When Neal makes his flight by the skin of his teeth and is relegated from first class, it is Griffith he finds himself sitting next to, and he soon realises that a stolen cab was the least of his worries as he stares at the flight companion from hell, the kind who could crush even the most resolute sense of seasonal good cheer. The only thing keeping a lid on Neal’s frustrations as Griffith airs his feet and falls asleep on his shoulder is the fact that their relationship will be fleeting.

Of course, their relationship is anything but. In fact, it is long and excruciating, a constant pulling apart and coming together as if the two were bound by some sadistic fate. Every time Del offers his assistance, Neal has no choice but to accept, and there is always a price to pay. Before the movie is twenty minutes old Neal has already crumbled, squirming under a mountain of pet peeves and bursting into an unfortunate diatribe that leaves his roommate on the verge of tears. Not only is Del a slob, he attracts misfortune like a lightning rod and always seems to duck each bolt at the last moment, leaving his reluctant companion frying in his wake. By the time the two of them say their first of many false goodbyes, Neal can hardly bare to look at him.

Griffith is the kind of loner very few of us can relate to, a tragic figure who isolates himself despite his best efforts. He is aware of his flaws but still fails to understand how Neal could be so upset with him, because even if he is at fault for something his intentions are never less than noble. Even if he almost kills you by driving along the highway in the wrong direction, his heart is in the right place, and that should be enough for anyone. In reality, there is no place in ’80s America for honest, good-hearted souls. Countless Americans were crushed by Reagan’s globalised model as Wall Street decadence ran roughshod over small businesses, dismantling worker unions and making fools out of honest citizens who valued solidarity in the workplace. America was becoming less about industry, more about advertising bluster. The fact that Del is able to make a living based on his goodhearted nature tells you everything you need to know about his character.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles earrings

Neal, on the other hand, is somebody almost all of us can relate to, and is very much a product of America’s economic express train. He works hard in a job he resents, smiling through his teeth as fat-cat bosses do everything in their power to waste his time, and the world goes and kicks him in the balls anyway. All he wants to do is return home to his wife and kids, his tranquil island among the chaos, and every facet of the world turns against him. First his flight has to make an emergency landing, then he can’t get a room, his wallet is stolen, and when his ragged frame stumbles towards the car rental booth to inform the painted smile that the vehicle he hired is not where it is supposed to be, she replies to his infamous F-bomb tirade with the kind of breezy cynicism his attitude deserves. We laugh with Neal because he represents all of our worst urges, the kind we find ourselves calling upon with an ever increasing regularity, but we never resent Del for his ceaseless hindrance, a testament to the unlikely charm of the Griffith character and the actor who portrays him.

Car Rental Agent: How may I help you?

Neal: You can start by wiping that fucking dumb-ass smile off your rosy, fucking cheeks! And you can give me a fucking automobile: a fucking Datsun, a fucking Toyota, a fucking Mustang, a fucking Buick! Four fucking wheels and a seat!

Car Rental Agent: I really don’t care for the way you’re speaking to me.

Neal: And I really don’t care for the way your company left me in the middle of fucking nowhere with fucking keys to a fucking car that isn’t fucking there. And I really didn’t care to fucking walk, down a fucking highway, and across a fucking runway to get back here to have you smile in my fucking face. I want a fucking car RIGHT FUCKING NOW!

There are so many memorable scenes in Planes, Trains and Automobiles that the joke never wears thin. The comedy is largely one-dimensional, the odd couple paradigm as conventional as they come, but the writing and execution are so flawless, the situations and personalities so endearing. Rather than delivering a series of comedy set-pieces just for laughs, Hughes precipitates a tumbling snowball of hard-earned pathos, and his understanding of the human condition is as sharp as ever. As a kid, movies such as Weird Science and The Breakfast Club really spoke to me. Watching them as an adult, they smack of idealism and mawkish wish-fulfilment, but back then such negatives were positives, and the way his actors blossomed, the manner in which his characters interacted, there was something truly refreshing about it all. This was the way kids behaved away from the prying eyes of their parents.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles does the same for adults, unleashing the kind of antisocial outbursts that went against Reagan’s family values by exposing the grievances beneath. We empathise with these characters on the most fundamental level, and despite their almost pantomime delineations they slip from hero to villain and back again so seamlessly that they become almost interchangeable, and as a consequence very rounded and real.


The comedy comes thick and fast — the awkward scene in which Del and Neal share a late night snuggle, the cringing moment their rented car goes up in flames and Neal’s vengeful laughter turns to horror when he realises it was leased using his credit card — but the film flourishes during moments of great poignancy, especially the movie’s famous twist, one so emotive and powerful in its ability to alter our perceptions that Neal experiences something of an emotional renaissance, and what we are left with is the kind of unlikely bond that was forged against unimaginable odds, and as a result will almost certainly last forever.

Neal: [Comes back to Chicago rail station to find Del sitting alone] Del, what are you doing here? You said you were going home, what are you doing here?

Del: I uh… I don’t have a home. Marie’s been dead for eight years.

Del and Neal’s reluctant road trip is fuelled by the kind of gross misfortune that makes laughter a necessity. Neal may depend on wit to shield him from life’s undesirable qualities, but when the personification of all his fears lands in his lap and won’t let go, his cynicism turns to anger, but then to acceptance and the realisation that these incidents may one day be looked upon as the good times, as those occasions when you had no other option than to just let go. After all, in other ways he is the luckiest man alive. The things that truly matter are waiting for him back home.

Del, he no longer has a home, and the very real tragedy that life can spring has allowed him the kind of perspective that most are unable to acquire until it’s much too late. His unfortunate habits and proclivity for being in the wrong place at the wrong time are trivial when viewed as part of the bigger picture, but more acute when given the proper attention, a fact that slowly dawns upon his mismatched buddy along with the realisation that Del is ‘The Happy Wanderer’ only in spirit, and his persistence is less an accident waiting to happen, more a subconscious product of desperation and loneliness.

Director: John Hughes
Screenplay: John Hughes
Music: Ira Newborn
Cinematography: Donald Peterman
Editing: Paul Hirsch

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