Rain Man (1988) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language and sexuality
Running Time: 133 min.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Valeria Golino, Jerry Molen, Jack Murdock, Barry Levinson
Cameo: Bonnie Hunt, Chris Mulkey
Director: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Ronald Bass, Barry Morrow
Cruise (Cocktail, Top Gun) stars as self-absorbed California businessman Charlie Babbitt, who heads to the Midwest to attend his estranged father's funeral and to see what will happen to his $3 million estate. Surely it would have to be left to his one and only son. Turns out that Charlie isn't an only son, as he soon learns about a trust fund set up for a care giving hospital where his autistic older brother Raymond (Hoffman, Tootsie) resides. Raymond is more functional than most, and is in fact a savant, able to read and memorize extraordinary amounts of facts and figures, but his whole life must be in complete order or he feels uncomfortable. His world is turned upside down when Charlie decides to take him out of the institution without notification under the pretense of return if he gets some of the money left in the trust he feels is rightfully his. They decide to fly to California, except Raymond is unwilling to get on the plane, so they must travel cross-country in the 1949 Buick Roadmaster left to Charlie by his father. Along the way, Charlie struggles with patience and conscience, and begins to question what's most important in life.
Nominated for 8 Academy Awards and winner of 4 (Best Picture, Best Actor (Hoffman), Original Screenplay, and Director), Rain Man isn't quite the downer drama you might be expecting if you judge it solely by the plot. Packing more moments of humor than most comedies are able to deliver, it is a bittersweet story of two brothers who never quite knew each other coming to terms with feelings they were never allowed to have, and how one brother must cope with the fact that his affection for the other may never be shown in return. Dustin Hoffman has nursed Barry Morrow's initial screenplay for years trying to see if it could be made, only to have people pass time and again due to the lack of perceived commercial viability for a story about an arrogant SOB and his autistic brother. How wrong those people were. Not only would it win Best Picture, but it would also hold the title of the most successful film at the box office in 1988.
Although critics often complain about movie stars trying to secure mentally challenged roles because they are often nominated for big awards, in the case of Hoffman, I feel his accolades are justified. Without a believable performance, there just wouldn't be a movie, and given the highs, lows, and very unbelievable character quirks shown by Raymond, there probably aren't but a handful of actors who might have been able to play the role so convincingly, and to carry the weight and momentum of the movie to the very end. It's a performance so impressive it almost makes you overlook a terrific one by Tom Cruise in another big shot-who-needs-comeuppance role he seems to have made into a career. It should be noted that director Levinson (Jimmy Hollywood, Wag the Dog) allowed for a great deal of ad-libbing, especially on Hoffman's part, which allowed more personality and naturalistic reactions to emerge. Given that it's a road trip movie, the two men are the only actors much of the time, and their interactions yield at least a dozen priceless moments, both in drama and comedy.
Rain Man, for all of its critical success, isn't what one might call a masterpiece so much as an example of a Hollywood formula picture done with consummate professionalism. Like most classic Hollywood films, it doesn't strive for artistic heights so much as try to deliver the best quality it can, and even if it relies on clichés and a few bits of predictability, it never loses its hold on intelligence and efficiency in the process. While the plotting may not hold much in terms of unheard of developments, the bulk of the joys of Rain Man come from the smaller delights held in the character touches. While it is always fascinating to watch Raymond's reaction to any new environment and discovery, it is also interesting to see Charlie's journey of self-discovery (Raymond's idiosyncrasies force Charlie to be a fish out of water himself), learning a great deal about his father and his upbringing that explains a great deal as to why so much pressure had been put on him which eventually led to a rift that never healed.
With such universal appeal, I don't know who I wouldn't recommend Rain Man to, except those who might refuse to watch anything R-rated (mostly for profanity and one sex scene that has moaning (mimicked by Raymond for one of the funnier moments) but no nudity). If that means you, catch it when it appears on commercial television. Although clearly a slick product of the 1980s big studio system, all of the spit and polish of Levinson's delivery is mere window dressing on a story told with inspiration, compassion and profundity.
©2008 Vince Leo