Monday, December 10, 2018

Rain Man (1988): A Review


It surprises me that as of this writing, it has been thirty years since Rain Man hit the zeitgeist of the United States. You couldn't go anywhere without hearing people talk about being 'an excellent driver'. Perhaps that is why Rain Man has both aged poorly and is not as well-remembered as other films, even from 1988 (I'd argue that Bull Durham and Dangerous Liaisons are more remembered). Rain Man is so dominated by one performer that everything else is all but forgotten, some of that being good, some being unfair.

Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is feverishly trying to save his luxury car import business, which is facing problems from EPA regulators and his creditors. Fortunately for him, he's learned that his estranged father Sanford has died.

Unfortunately for him, he also learns that Daddy Dearest has left him nothing except a 1949 Buick Roadmaster and some rose bushes. Understandably enraged at having the rest of his estate, coming at $3 million dollars, cut off from him, a little digging turns up some surprises.

The big surprise is that he has a hereto unknown brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). Raymond has been institutionalized at a mental hospital for decades, but to both Charlie and his girlfriend Susanna's (Valeria Golino) astonishment, Raymond is able to not only identify the car but that he is what is called an 'autistic savant'.

Image result for rain man movieRaymond's autism allows him to be masterful with numbers but he has poor social skills. Nevertheless, Charlie essentially kidnaps his challenged brother to try and get at half the inheritance. He is perpetually callous towards Raymond, so much so that Susanna leaves in disgust even as Charlie's business is starting to fail.

Charlie must endure the difficulty of Raymond, which among other things means Raymond won't fly to Los Angeles (Raymond knowing all the airplanes have crashed save Quantas). Charlie's forced to drive them from Cincinnati to LA, much to his irritation at his irritating older brother.

Charlie perpetually snaps at Raymond until he discovers that Raymond is also 'Rain Man', a vague childhood memory whom Charlie always thought was an imaginary friend. In reality, Charlie's memory of the "imaginary" 'Rain Man' was really a faint recollection of Raymond, which a toddler Charlie could not pronounce properly. As they continue on their journey, Charlie soon starts seeing his brother in a different light, not that it stops him from using Raymond to count cards in Las Vegas, earning enough to pay off his debts.

After an informal hearing to determine what is best for Raymond, Charlie finally gives up and sees that it would be best to return him to the hospital. The emotionalless Raymond takes all this in, and Charlie and Raymond's caretaker doctor reach an agreement. Raymond returns to Cincinnati, and Charlie tells him he'll see him in a couple of weeks, which Raymond has calculated to the second.

Related imageI sense that the only thing people really remember from Rain Man is Hoffman's performance, but that is not necessarily a compliment. Thirty years on, people still mimic Hoffman's "I'm an excellent driver", complete with blank tone, cocked head and almost dead eyes. Mentions about "definitely" in that same tone also permeate the lexicon, even if people may not remember the film itself.

Hoffman, good or ill, so swallows Rain Man that he drowns out everything else. This is quite curious given that Rain Man should be Charlie's story: his growth and evolution from callow youth to genuinely loving brother.

We won't even go into the curious situation of having Cruise play Hoffman's younger brother despite the fact that Hoffman is old enough to be Cruise's father! There's a twenty-five year age gap between Hoffman and Cruise (at the time Rain Man was made, the former was 51, the latter 26). If we go by the events chronicled in Rain Man, Charlie would have been two years old and Raymond would have been 27 when they last saw each other. Yes, theoretically there can be an age gap that wide between siblings, but that tends to be for half-siblings more than full-siblings.

According to the film, Sanford Babbitt was 45 when Charlie was born. If we use the actual age difference, that would have made Sanford 20 when Raymond was born. Again, plausible, but how old exactly was their late mother when either Raymond or Charlie were born, or am I once again getting hung up on details? Have I also digressed?

Rain Man is a good reminder of when Tom Cruise actually acted as opposed to being the action star he has grown into (and no, that is not a short joke as Cruise and I are the same height). Cruise makes the evolution of Charlie more believable, even if the script made it feel surprisingly rushed. It's a credit to Cruise as an actor that he made Charlie into someone we could care about even if his actions were horrible.

Image result for rain man movie
For better or worse though, despite how strong Cruise is, Rain Man is all Hoffman, all the time. Pauline Kael, the doyenne of film criticism, eviscerated Rain Man and especially Hoffman. "Humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes", she famously described it. There is truth to Kael's statement. We can cut Hoffman some slack in that Raymond is simply incapable of change. As the autistic (much) older brother, he cannot suddenly have realization or understanding.

However, in many ways, Hoffman is about the performance, and Rain Man gives him a chance to act up a storm with Raymond's various quarks, his lack of emotion, his flat voice, his body movements. From his stillness to his sudden fits of fear and rage, Rain Man is not going to let one see a change in Raymond. Rather, he's just the vehicle for Charlie's change, and a character that allows for a full-on 'performance'.

Gugino is a touch comic as the long-suffering girlfriend, and again that is not a compliment.

Where I think Rain Man suffers is in Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass' screenplay.  At one point, I thought it would have been easier for Charlie to sedate Raymond to get him on the plane. As Raymond seems fine in taking the train, why not have simply done that rather than take this long road trip? I know, questions of logic because you had to have the road trip (how else to get to Vegas). It's certainly amusing to see how, despite being a hustler, Charlie is unaware that the casinos wouldn't catch on to his questionable winning.

Rain Man plays with the audience, and while I see where it is going in terms of the story of brotherly love and redemption, I still found it too long and a trifle insincere. I still think Rain Man will be remembered for two things: winning Best Picture and Hoffman's now much-parodied performance. I don't think it's terrible but apart from those two elements, who really remembers Rain Man?


1989 Best Picture Winner: Driving Miss Daisy

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