This year marks the 35th anniversary of what is widely considered the greatest Thanksgiving movie of all time:Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Paramount celebrates the occasion with a new 4K remastered version with over an hour of deleted scenes from the original film (which was initially posted at three heavy hours). The two-handed romp starring Steve Martin and John Candy as a pair of unlikely fellow travelers trying to get home for Thanksgiving has stood the test of time when it comes to brightly-paced comedic beats, but with each passing year, it becomes a bit more dated. with a possible redo in the works (or maybe not, considering Will Smith’s image isn’t what it was back in 2020 when the project was announced; imagine what the rental-car collapse would look like now), we had to wonder how much of Neal and Neal’s disastrous trip Del could be avoided today. with all the news that we have at our fingertips.
In an age of internet-enabled smartphones, digital wallets, and apps like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, there are plenty of solutions out there that make traveling easier than it was in 1987. We even have virtual meeting software that makes traveling less necessary. , so Steve Martin’s character may not even have had to be in New York to pitch a physical ad campaign to that indecisive client. Without that business trip two days before Thanksgiving there would be no movie, but where else would it have gotten stuck along the way? Let’s take it beat by beat.
The first sign that we are living in a very different era is the fact that one of the first things Neal (Martin) does is check his watch. in addition to being a very 80s watch, time is also remarkable. It’s a quarter to five and you have a six o’clock flight. The fact that he still hopes to make it when he leaves the meeting shows how far we’ve come, and not necessarily in the right direction. This is probably the only case where things were simpler back then. Neal is more concerned with being delayed in finding a cab than getting stuck in an airport security line (in fact, Kevin Bacon won it before an available cab in a memorable cameo). With no Uber or Lyft service, he has to pay a businessman cash for his cab, then loses it to Del (Candy) in the opposite of a cute encounter.
Neal arrives at the airport at 5:58 thinking that he will still be able to board the plane if he hurries. No waiting to go through security, no ID or ticket checkpoints (TSA didn’t exist yet), so you navigate (we don’t actually see this, but time suggests only a few minutes between getting to the airport and arriving at your door). We’ll never know if he really would have made the original flight, because by the time he gets to the gate he’s delayed.
When Neal finally comes on board with his paper ticket he discovers that he has been assigned an economy class seat despite paying for first class. Could that happen now without the passenger being aware of it before boarding the plane? Neal and Del meet for the third time (after an awkward run-in at the airport) as seatmates, cementing the growing animosity between them. His crash-landing in Wichita, due to a Chicago blizzard, is unfortunately something that still plagues travelers today. The consequences, however, are a different story.
What is the first thing you would do if you were forced to make an unexpected landing in a random city and had to spend the night? Grab your phone and start looking for a hotel room, right? And failing that, you can turn to Airbnb or VRBO or a travel site for more options. What you wouldn’t have to do is wait in a long line for a payphone and risk all the local rooms gone by the time you get to the front. That’s what happens to Neal, and it’s the leverage Del uses to stay with him a little longer. If Neal had other options, he would wait out the storm and catch another plane the next day. And that would be the end of the movie.
However, out of options, he heads with Del to the Braidwood Inn. Here’s another example where a rideshare app would come in handy. They have to make do with the 1980s equivalent, Doobby’s Taxiola, a cab outfitted with a suspicious driver who insists on taking the “scenic route” in the middle of the night. Both men hand their Diners Cards (which still exist!) to the hotel receptionist, who marks them with a manual carbon credit card machine and mixes them up when he hands them back. This could probably still happen today, but the error would be apparent much sooner.
Despite not specifying a smoking room (he wasn’t required to back then), Del does smoke in the room. Don’t try to imagine what it must have smelled like in there; not a fun exercise. That night, while the boys are sleeping, a teenager breaks into their room and robs them (fun fact: in a deleted scene, the same teenager delivers a pizza to the room earlier in the night and Del tips him, so this it’s his revenge). If the door had an electronic card reader like most hotel rooms now, it wouldn’t have been so easy for the intruder to get in. They would still have had their money the next morning, and one less thing to fight over.
A plane to Chicago still doesn’t look good (a weather app would take the guesswork out of it), so the next phase of the trip involves taking a train. They make it as far as Jefferson City before the train breaks down and they have to walk to a bus station and catch a bus to St. Louis. Again, a Google search, a call to the credit card company, and a carpool would take care of all this and Neal would be home by Thanksgiving. End of the movie.
With no money to buy more tickets, Del goes into vendor mode and earns some money selling shower curtain rings (which, by the way, are also mostly obsolete now), helps Neal, and after sharing a meal at a restaurant in St. Louis, they once again go their separate ways. We might as well take this opportunity to point out how many pay phones Neal uses in this movie to call home. His wife has no idea where she is, so she can’t communicate with him directly. She can only wait for him to call her with her travel updates as Thanksgiving draws ever closer. It is unfathomable.
Neal’s next travel mishap is being left in a rental car park with a set of keys to a car that isn’t there. The bus drops it off and…it just leaves it there. There is no other airport shuttle en route. It’s completely stuck. Again. The final straw leads to the famous “fucked up” tirade directed at Edie McClurg as the car rental agent, after he had to trek through snow across a highway and airport runway to get there. The bottom line is that he’s the one who’s “fucked up” because he’s lost his paper rental agreement. It would be very easy to search nowadays, if he didn’t already have it accessible on his phone, but Neal had no such luck.
Del comes to his rescue again with a rental car that he was somehow able to acquire with Neal’s Diners Club card. He lights up a cigarette like in the room, and we’re willing to bet he didn’t have to ask for a car you could smoke in. The near-death experience they face when going in the wrong direction on the road could have been easily avoided by using a navigation app. However, that wouldn’t have helped when the car caught fire.
The last hotel they stayed the night together won’t accept their toasty credit cards (another phone call and this problem might have been solved, too), so Neal trades in his fancy watch to get a room. In their final stretch, they are stopped by a state trooper (played by Michael McKean) who impounds their burnt-out car. According to McKean, there was a scene where he tells them that they are over Chicago by about a hundred miles (which a navigation app would have told them as well). Finally, Del arrives with another primitive carpool: a three-hour ride in the back of a cheese truck to downtown Chicago.
It seems they’re going their separate ways again, and if Del had asked Neal for his email address instead of his home address, he might have given it to him. Del would have definitely found him on social media and followed all the accounts. But that would have taken away the feeling of reluctant parting that makes this scene so moving. If Neal hadn’t put the pieces together on the train and come back, there’s a real chance they would never have seen each other again. He’s glad he does it, because it’s a perfect ending.
An intelligent writer could still do Planes, Trains and Automobiles It currently works with a few tweaks. Taking their smartphones out of the game early on, say due to damage or theft or whatever, would put modern versions of Neal and Del pretty close to where they were in 1987. The question isn’t whether it can be done, but if it should be without John Hughes to at least consult on the project. His gifts for characterization and storytelling, not to mention the performances of Martin and Candy, are what made the original more than just a goofy comedy of errors. The characters have stayed with us for so long because they are flawed, fully realized human beings who get into each other’s skin and then dig deeper to find the heart that beats within. That’s what keeps us coming back to this movie year after year, and why it will never get stale.