In many synagogues, there is a sign out front on which is emblazoned a quotation from Psalms: “May G-d always be before me.” I always assumed that it related to the context of prayer, encouraging a person to focus on the Divine rather than on mundane matters.
But now I think that King David, the Psalmist, was referring to life itself. The maxim instructs us to think always of what G-d expects of us before we act: “Would He approve of what I am about to do?”
It is a fact that we are tested daily in the woof and warp of everyday life. We encounter people who irritate and situations that are unpleasant; do we respond appropriately to the many negative stimuli around us, to the bothersome things that can turn a good day into a day of anger and malaise?
This is the essence of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” a raw and sometimes crude comedy that shows us what happens when we don’t think that G-d is in the room, when we lose it and then feel terrible for the mess we have created. It is a mistake we often make when we assume that our needs always come first or that ours are the only needs that count.
The film opens as Neal Page, a marketing executive, tries to get home to Chicago from New York for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday to be with his family. At the airport, he meets Del Griffith, a verbose salesman, who strikes up a conversation with him.
Neal is not interested, but things get even worse when Neal’s flight is delayed and he is bumped from first class to coach and is seated next to Del.
Due to snow in Chicago, the plane is routed to Wichita, Kansas, where the flight to Chicago is cancelled altogether. Del helps Neal find a hotel, but there is one problem: The room only has one bed. Moreover, Neal is neat and Del is very messy, which makes for a tension-filled night where tempers flare.
The next day, more complications ensue, these involving trains and automobiles. Catastrophes pile up until they finally arrive in Chicago on Thanksgiving Day, Happily, something good happens during their eventful journey home.
Neal, a sensitive soul at heart, gradually realizes the heavy price he is paying for his outpouring of anger and frustration. “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” depicts a worst-case scenario, but clearly the emotional cost of overreacting when under stress is clear.
Neal begins to see Del for the gentle, caring person that he is, not just as the obnoxious boor he assumed he was. Nearing their destination, the pair are worn out physically but enriched by a friendship born from adversity.
As Neal reflects on his nightmarish experience, he feels connected to Del because of their shared adventure. Time is a healer, and Neal feels relieved when the moment of crisis is over.
Realizing that he will be able to share Thanksgiving with his family, Neal thinks of others who may not have the loving support system with which he is blessed. Seeing things from the aspect of eternity motivates him to seek out Del, who may not have a place to go on this special day of family celebration.
Adversity often makes us appreciate what we have. “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” is an urban horror story played for laughs, and it reminds us that we can avoid a lot of pain if we keep our emotions in check and do not respond to every provocation.
If we are aware that G-d is before us, then we become more thoughtful, make better decisions and lead healthier emotional lives.
By Rabbi Herbert Cohen
Editor’s note: Rabbi Cohen, former principal of Yeshiva Atlanta, now resides in Beit Shemesh, Israel. koshermovies.com.