Joseph Wapner’s #1 fan. Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman and Academy Award nominee Tom Cruise star in Rain Man.
Director – Barry Levinson
Screenplay – Ronald Bass & Barry Morrow
Producer – Mark Johnson
Upon learning that his estranged father had died, car dealer Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) and his girlfriend Susanna (Valeria Golino) travel to Cincinnati, Ohio to settle the estate. All Charlie ends up getting out of the will is his father’s 1949 Buick Roadmaster and some rosebushes; the bulk of the $3 million estate will be given to an unnamed trustee.
Wanting to know who this mystery beneficiary is, Charlie does some digging and discovers that the money is being directed to a mental institution, which he visits and is stunned by the news that he has an older autistic brother named Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). When trying to cut a deal with Raymond’s legal guardian fails, Charlie “borrows” his brother in the hope he can use him as leverage to claim part of the fortune.
Long before Sphere, Envy, Man of the Year and Rock the Kasbah started stinking up his filmography, Barry Levinson stormed through the ’80s and ’90s with a string of top-notch films – Diner, The Natural, Tin Men, Good Morning, Vietnam, Avalon, Bugsy, Sleepers and Wag the Dog. Rain Man came somewhere in between and would earn Levinson the Academy Award for Best Director.
Prior to and around the release of Rain Man, autism was a rarely discussed disability. The success of this film, both critically and financially, pushed the issue to the forefront. Over the years since then, autism cases have increased significantly to the point that some doctors have criticized what they believe to be an over-diagnosis of the disorder.
And speaking of criticism, over time Rain Man itself has come under fire by those that feel Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning portrayal as Raymond Babbitt is “inauthentic”. Yes, Ray’s disorder, savant syndrome, isn’t the norm among the majority of autism cases; in fact, it’s estimated that only 10% of those with autism have some form of savant abilities (high-level abilities that far exceed what is normal, e.g., memorization, art, music, arithmetic). But I never once got the impression from Rain Man that Ray’s case was the defining trait of autism.
‘Cause if it was, believe me, that bottle return kid that works at the nearby grocery store and I would’ve tore through Las Vegas years ago.
Levinson, believe it or not, was actually the fourth director approached to helm Rain Man after three directors stepped down – Martin Brest, Sydney Pollack and Steven Spielberg. While those three certainly could’ve turned in just as strong an effort (I mean, it is Spielberg, for crying out loud), this film feels perfectly suited for Levinson’s sensibilities. His ability to blend comic relief with drama, as he’s done prior to this film with Diner and Good Morning, Vietnam, is the perfect complement to Ronald Bass and Barrow Morrow’s screenplay. It’s a familiar familiar, for sure, the “Odd Couple” road trip where the self-absorbed, opportunistic half will most certainly undergo a change by the end of the film, but Levinson’s shown a great knack for making magic out of familiar formulas (though Wag the Dog is proof that he’s in no way incapable of tackling clever, complex ideas).
Though this isn’t really a comedy, part of the charm of Rain Man is its subtle use of humor, which works primarily ’cause of the terrific chemistry between Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. Throwing humor into a film based around a character with a mental disability is tricky business, and one wrong move from Levinson or his cast could’ve left viewers cringing. Rain Man, though, avoids such a mishap since Raymond is never used as the object for laughs; in fact, on the contrary, as on more than one occasion, we’re reminded of just how serious his disorder really is. Sure, Raymond scores some laughs with all his statistical rambling, and dire need to watch The People’s Court, but it’s not so much what he does or says that’s funny as it is Charlie’s frustration in dealing with him.
Susanna: “You’re using Raymond. You’re using me. You use everybody.”
Charlie: “Using Raymond? Raymond! Hey, Raymond, am I using you? Am I using you, Raymond?”
Charlie. “Shut up! He’s answering a question from a half hour ago!”
Playing a character with any form of disability is a heavy task for even the most talented of the A-list stars, and it can backfire if not handled right. I mean, just ask Sean Penn how it worked for him. There’s a difference between endearing and pandering cuteness and Dustin Hoffman falls in the former category, hitting it out of the park as Raymond. No false steps are taken by Hoffman and there’s nothing cute about his performance, nor are there any cures or solutions for his disability. He doesn’t change ’cause he’s unable to change (a sharp contrast to his brother Charlie who doesn’t change ’cause he chooses not to). He’s unmoved and very matter-of-fact, though disruptions to his routine does make him grow uneasy. Yet despite a character arc that is flat, though justifiably so, Hoffman manages to create a sympathetic portrait without falling back on any cheap sentimental tricks to manipulate our emotions.
Despite Hoffman’s great, definitely award-worthy work, the true star here is Tom Cruise, giving his strongest performance since Risky Business. Not that he’s better than Hoffman, though he’s certainly his equal here, but this was the film where people finally began to take Cruise seriously as an actor. Yes, he had the aforementioned Risky Business and he’s turned in fine work in The Color of Money (aka “the Paul Newman show”), Top Gun and The Outsiders. However, The Color of Money was, as I just said, Paul Newman’s film, Top Gun’s a great action film, but hardly a showcase for Cruise’s performance and he was only part of an ensemble in The Outsiders. His performance in Rain Man proved he could be more than just a pretty face flinging cocktail shakers and liquor bottles around, and would lead to heavier roles in Born on the Fourth of July, A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire and Magnolia.
Cruise greatly elevates what could’ve been a thanklessly cliche role, the arrogant brother who experiences a change of heart. Cruise handles the arrogance just fine ’cause that comes easily to him both on and off the camera, but the growth his character undergoes, which comes naturally over the course of the film, is where the meat of his performance lies. We’re able to buy into his change of heart, ’cause, unlike Raymond, we can identify with Charlie. No, not all of us are the egotistical opportunist he is, but we certainly can understand his impatience, confusion and utter frustrating in trying to make sense of his brother.
Don’t let the Lifetime-y premise fool you ’cause Rain Man is vastly superior to any of the network’s “Disability of the Week” heart-string manipulator thanks to Barry Levinson’s direction, the profoundly moving script by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow and mainly the extraordinary performances from Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. Sure, it’s one out a million other transformative road trip flicks, but its sentimental trappings are effortlessly transcended by the slightly frustrating, surprisingly funny and genuinely touching bond that grows between these two brothers.