Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
We first meet Charlie Babbitt when he's in full on "poor little rich boy" mode. He comes from money, but he doesn't seem to have very much currently—and he's trying to change that fact by peddling Lamborghinis.
However, because the EPA has just a wee problem with the emissions coming from his pricey muscle cars, he's having trouble getting them to his buyers. So, Charlie is pretty wound up and money obsessed during the film's early moments, that's for sure.
Call To Adventure
Things take a turn when Charlie gets word that his father has died, and (even though he hasn't talked to his dad in a really long time) he has to hit the road to Cincinnati to attend the funeral… and collect his inheritance, of course (with his fetching partner/girlfriend in tow).
When he gets there, though, he gets a pretty big surprise: he's been largely cut out of his dad's will. Aside from a few rose bushes and a car, his father's money has gone to an unnamed trustee. His father has left Charlie a letter that gives us some insight into their estrangement.
Refusal Of The Call
Instead of taking his father's final letter to him to heart and really doing some soul searching about the choices and attitudes that led to a lifelong feud/chill with his dad (over his use of the family car—yes, really), Charlie goes on a quest for this mysterious trustee who's taken his inheritance, and so shies away from the kind of spiritual overhaul he so desperately needs.
Meeting The Mentor
Charlie's investigations bring him to Wallbrook Hospital, a place where adults who can't care for themselves (for a variety of reasons) receive care and monitoring. Charlie finds out that his father's money went to a doctor there and is being held in trust for a brother he never knew he had.
Charlie is totally shocked, but instead of focusing on embracing his new brother, he decides to basically kidnap and hold him for ransom until he gets what he thinks he's owed from his father's estate. Little does he know, of course, that a relationship with his long-lost brother can give him something much more valuable than money… but right now, he's still just a selfish money-obsessed jerk.
Crossing The Threshold
Of course, what Charlie doesn't foresee is just how much he's going to have to do to accommodate Raymond's needs, habits, and desires. You see, Ray's autistic, and disruptions to his routine don't really sit all that well with him; he requires a certain amount of sensitivity that Charlie doesn't really have.
Charlie tries to bulldoze over Raymond, insisting that Ray come back with him to L.A. to have a custody hearing (as part of his quest to get his hands on some/all of the money his dad left to Raymond), but Raymond ultimately just flat out refuses to get on a plane, since he's terrified of crashing (and is really well-informed about crash statistics). So, Charlie and Raymond end up on a long road trip from Cincinnati to L.A.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
The brotherly road trip encounters quite a few hurdles. Despite the fact that Charlie is trying to rush back to L.A., for example, Raymond won't leave the house when it's raining—so, if it's wet outside, they can't travel.
Also, Raymond gets scared when he sees an accident on the interstate and refuses to travel via highway after that, which slows them down further.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
While they're on the road, Charlie finally learns why his father kept Raymond away from him. It seems that Raymond had some kind of accident involving Charlie and the bath, and so Raymond was sent away for Charlie's safety.
Also, it turns out that Charlie's memories of an imaginary friend and protector named "Rain Man" were actually about Raymond. So, in this realization, Charlie basically butts up against a painful family secret that made everyone in the family unhappy in some way, shape, or form. This confrontation with his family's ugly/sad past is a big turning point for Charlie, since it opens him up to Raymond really being in his life as something other than a pawn.
You know, like, as a brother.
Of course, now that he actually cares about his brother, he has less greedy reasons for wanting to keep him in his life—and that's going to be difficult, since he's not really familiar with or prepared to deal with the challenges Raymond faces.
When they stop in a small town so Charlie can make a phone call, Raymond gets out of the car and ends up confused and scared in traffic. When Charlie takes him to the doctor to get an opinion of Raymond's capacity—in preparation for the hearing in L.A. regarding custody of Raymond—he learns a lot more about autism and Raymond's special abilities/challenges.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
During the visit with the doctor, it finally sinks in for Charlie that Raymond is really smart at remembering things and counting/math. So, naturally, he decides they're going to Vegas so Raymond can put his skillz to good use by counting cards at the blackjack table. As predicted, Raymond is great at it, and they clean up—which means Charlie has some of that $$$ he needs to clean up his financial problems at home.
In addition to the financial "win," Raymond and Charlie get some real bonding moments on this trip—they even slow dance!
The Road Back
Susanna joins the boys in Vegas, and then the three of them head back to L.A. together. Raymond gets to drive for just a small stretch (like, the hotel driveway), since he's been insisting for the entire film that he's an excellent driver.
Once they're back in L.A., Charlie is dismayed when Raymond sets a fire while simply trying to make breakfast. Apparently life together isn't going to be any easier just because they've bonded, Charlie is starting to realize…
Raymond and Charlie go to the custody hearing, and after listening to Raymond's doctor and the judge weigh in on Raymond's particular case, Charlie is forced to accept the court's decision that he can't give his big brother the kind of care that he needs.
Return With The Elixir
The fact that Charlie doesn't fight the decision really shows how much he's developed throughout the film, since he's now focused on what's better for Raymond rather than what he wants or needs.
Sure, he's sad that he's losing his brother just as he's getting to know him, but again, he seems to recognize that going back to Wallbrook is what's best for Ray. So, even while he's "losing" his brother, we realize that he's gained a whole new perspective on life and become a much better dude. Yay!