Arts & CultureFilm & TV

Alston: Why don’t movies capture the struggles of travel?

Winter break is something every student looks forward to experiencing. But those who left Eugene in December quickly found out that getting back to school in the snow is a special kind of hell. Most of Oregon reached sub-freezing temperatures and snow caused crippling traffic issues throughout Portland. Snow covered Eugene and even led to canceled classes on Jan. 9, as both the Portland and Eugene airports lost their collective minds.

As a result, my time spent at home in the Bay Area was extended; my flight back to school was canceled three times over five days. By Sunday night (a few hours before classes were scheduled to start) the Silicon Valley felt a bit like a prison.

Movies, naturally, provided some entertainment. But few films I watched over the break were able to communicate how frustrating it can be to have travel plans fall through. The same is true across the majority of movies.

Too often, character’s get from point A to point B via a montage or visual effect, with little regard for detail. Indiana Jones’ famous flights across the world were reduced to a red line on a map. In Chef, writer-director Jon Favreau distills a cross-country road trip to a series of comedic vignettes. Superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe sort of just fly wherever they are needed.

In short, it’s frustrating to see so many films gloss over the troubles you can encounter while traveling, especially after facing numerous delays in the real world.

Of course, it’s easy to argue that any film that gets bogged down in the details of everyday life would be, in the plainest terms, boring as hell. There’s a reason writers and directors omit scenes of characters fixing a broken tire, using a restroom or brushing teeth. If an action does not serve a dramatic or comedic purpose, it usually doesn’t belong in a movie.

But that doesn’t mean films can’t find joy or drama in the act of travel itself. In fact, groups of films designed almost entirely to poke fun at the possible misfortunes of a vacation or a trip home. In particular, writer-director John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles represents the best example of a comedy able to make laughs out of a disaster-ridden trip home.

The film, starring Steve Martin as a cynical and high-strung marketing executive, and John Candy as an outgoing and overly-positive shower curtain ring salesman, follows the pair of comedic giants over three days as Martin attempts to make a long odyssey home from New York City to Chicago. Along the way, flights get canceled, rental cars are ludicrously set aflame, and the two men gradually bond over their shared misadventures.

Hughes, who previously limited his directorial work to teen movies, mines Murphy’s law for great comedy; everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Steve Martin and John Candy have unexpectedly great chemistry, and the two of them milk every single moment for laughs. It’s hilarious to watch everything fall apart for them.

But the film is noteworthy beyond its hilarity. The set pieces on display are completely ridiculous. But in the context of canceled flights and constant Northwest snowfall, Planes, Trains and Automobiles emerges as one of the few films that focus on the minutiae of travel in the best way possible. As maddening as it can be not to get back to school on time, it’s impossible not to laugh at a movie that understands that frustration.

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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]