No turkey: Here's a movie that keeps on giving

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Nov. 19—Movies are a big part of my life. When I was the movie reviewer for The Albuquerque Tribune from the late '70s into the mid '80s, I'd see two to four films a week.

Ask me what my favorite movies are, and my response will vary, depending on what day of the month it is.

But the list usually includes "The Searchers," a 1956 John Ford Western starring John Wayne; "The Godfather" (1972); "Jaws" (1975); Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" (2019); and "Old Yeller" (1957), which I saw when I was 9.

Guilty pleasure? That would be "Predator," a 1987 science fiction/action movie set in the jungles of South America and starring two future governors — Arnold Schwarzenegger (California, 2003-2011) and Jesse Ventura (Minnesota, 1999-2003).

These movies reward me on some level every time I watch them.

But there is only one movie that remains as fresh today as the first time I saw it 36 years ago. It's a movie I have trouble talking about. I'll be laughing so hard recounting some scenes, I can scarcely utter an intelligible sentence. And when I try to describe its climax, I can't get a word over the lump in my throat.

It's a movie that says Thanksgiving to me as plainly as turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce and Dallas Cowboys football.

'Just perfect'I saw "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" with my younger brother, Rick, in 1987, at a four-screen theater in our hometown of Natchez, Mississippi. The movie opened the day before Thanksgiving that year and ran for 12 weeks in American theaters.

Rick and I were still in our 30s in 1987. (I'll spare you the math. We're both in our 70s now) He was working as a graphic designer for a Natchez business, and I was a reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune. I traveled to Natchez for the holidays that year, although we can't recall now if it were the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays. Doesn't matter.

My brother and I found ourselves with a few free hours one afternoon and decided to see this movie, written and directed by John Hughes and starring Steve Martin and John Candy.

Rick had been a Steve Martin fan since Martin's standup comedy days, and I had reviewed and admired earlier movies directed and/or written by Hughes. Even so, we were not prepared for the experience we had that afternoon at the four-plex or the lasting effect "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" has had on us.

"I watch it usually right before Thanksgiving, and I watch it in July," Rick told me on the phone recently. "It's a classic, and the ending is so touching. It's just perfect. I don't see what I would change in it. That's why I can watch it over and over."

Odd coupleThe movie is about Neal Page (Martin), an advertising executive who is on a business trip in New York City and is desperate to get home to his family in Chicago to celebrate Thanksgiving. Everything that can possibly go bad does, including diverted flights, canceled flights, airport rental cars that aren't where they are supposed to be.

Part of what makes this movie work is that most people can identify with wrecked travel plans. It's hilarious in the movie because it's happening to somebody else and not you.

"What me, the eternal pessimist, liked was all the things that kept going wrong," Rick told me. "It made me feel that maybe some people have it worse than me. Everybody has been in a bad situation in an airport at one time or the other. Remember that time you were flying from Albuquerque to Baton Rouge and got stuck in Dallas."

Circumstance pairs Neal with Del Griffith (Candy), a gregarious shower curtain ring salesman who is as rumpled and disheveled as Neal is preppy and put-together. The odd-couple element is at the core of the film and is a near-constant source of frustration for Neal, who can't stand to be with Del but somehow can't manage without him. It's Del that secures the ride — in the refrigerated trailer of a semi — that finally gets them to Chicago.

Over the years, Rick and I have enjoyed reliving our favorite parts of the movie during long-distance phone calls. It never fails to boost our spirits.

For example, there's the motel scene in which Neal is showering in a bathroom that Del has pretty much trashed with his sloppy habits. Neal is starting to relax as the hot water melts the tension from his body. But then the water just stops, leaving Neal blinded by the soap in his eyes and groping for a towel. The only thing he can find that Del has left unsoiled is a facecloth.

Rick admires the music in that scene.

"It's only fingers on a keyboard, but it's just right," he said.

Music adds a lot to the movie. Emmylou Harris' version of "Back in Baby's Arms" kicks up the comedy like no other song could in an awkward bit in which the men wake up in a motel bed they have had to share.

And there's Del at the wheel of a car, hurtling along a freeway at nighttime, playing imaginary piano keys on the dashboard in accompaniment to Ray Charles singing "Mess Around" on the car radio. That ends disastrously when Del gets turned around, drives the wrong direction on the highway, and nearly gets himself and Neal killed.

In one of my favorite scenes, the two men are sitting on Del's trunk on the side of the freeway, facing away from their battered vehicle, when a cigarette Del has dropped sets the car ablaze.

One at a time, the men turn around to look at the burning car and then face forward again without changing expression. Then they look at each other, stand in unison, and turn to stare at the flaming hulk. Not a word is said, but that segment speaks volumes. Laurel and Hardy would have been proud.

Making roomA few years ago, Rick and I were setting out on road trip from his home near Birmingham, Alabama. He casually slipped a disc into the CD player before he pulled away from his house. It was Ray Charles singing "Mess Around." I nearly busted a gut. My brother just smiled. Neither of us had to say a thing.

For all the wild and crazy and very funny misadventures in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," it is the poignant punch at the end that seals the deal on this movie.

What the film is really about is getting to know people who are not like you. It's about caring for people who are less fortunate than you, making room for them in your heart and at your table.

I appreciate that. I have lived a thousand miles from my hometown for 47 years, and for most of those years I have spent Thanksgiving here, far from family. But I have always been welcomed into someone's home to celebrate the day. This year, I will be with friends I have known since my first weeks in Albuquerque.

"Planes, Trains and Automobiles" usually shows on TV on Thanksgiving Day or in the days leading up to it. If you want to see it on the big screen, the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe will show five screenings Friday, Nov. 24, through Sunday Nov. 26. And it is also streaming on Paramount+, Showtime, Prime Video and Pluto TV. Check it out if you have never seen it, or if, like me, you never get tired of seeing it.