HOW WOULD you rate a comedy with -- ooh -- say, six funny moments spread out over, say, more than 2,000 miles?
Worth most, but not all, of your attention. Something to have on the tube perhaps, while you unpack your luggage at the hotel before your speech at the Tube Joiners Convention.
Which is sort of what this movie's all about -- the horror of modern travel, especially if you had planned to be on time. In the case of John Hughes' "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," it's a Thanksgiving appointment. Advertising exec Neal Page (Steve Martin) needs to get home to Chicago to carve the bird with adoring wife and family. He braves New York rush hour only to find his plane diverted to Kansas by snow. And with no flights in sight, he has to improvise his way home. It would be bad enough, but he has to spend the journey with oversized windbag Del Griffith (John Candy).
Griffith's a shower-curtain-ring salesman who talks your ear off, puts his socks in the sink, smokes and makes horrific mucus noises -- the guy you never want to get stuck sitting next to.
Page gets stuck with him. And starting with the cramped elbow-jostling in the plane, Page must room, phone, eat, cab, drink, hitch, train and you-name-it with Griffith. It's a one-gag situation, a physical reverse of the Laurel-and-Hardy and "Honeymooners" shtick, in which fat guy Candy exasperates skinny guy Martin. And Del Griffith never goes away -- throughout the Kafkaesque conspiracy of the elements, those oddballs who operate airlines, taxis and rental car agencies, and the never-ending American highways.
Martin and Candy could read your phone bill and make you laugh. Martin, fresh from "Roxanne," can make all four limbs look as though they're deserting his body -- simultaneously and in different directions. And his smile may require a "wide load" sign when he's out driving. Candy, like the late, great Jackie Gleason, has acres and acres of face to play with -- and does.
The script and direction by Hughes -- who made all those adolescent films from "Sixteen Candles" to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" -- amount to wobbly passes that Martin and Candy turn into touchdowns anyway.
For one, Hughes isn't sure whether to make them real people or not. In one scene, both men spring homophobically out of the same bed because Candy's hand was not gripping the pillows he thought. "See that Bears game last week?" says Martin, twitching spasmodically. It's a funny routine but it's also an uneven shift into the broader reaches of "Saturday Night Live" or "Second City TV" (the TV land from whence these -- and most other -- comedians come). One moment we're meeting a Real Redneck who twitches and snorts; the next, Candy's moaning in self- absorption about how he's "the real article . . . What you see is what you get."
There are many periods when the two men are traveling and you feel the need to fast-forward the movie to another scene. This is not a great comedy but it's a string of funny highlights.
PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (R) -- At area theaters.