Title: Rain Man
Release Date: 12 December, 1988
Oscar Ceremony: 29 March, 1989
Director: Barry Levinson
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Valeria Golino
Nominees: The Accidental Tourist, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning, Working Girl
“What you have to understand is, four days ago he was only my brother in name. And this morning we had pancakes.” – Charlie Babbitt
I can’t tell you how many Rain Man references I’ve hear throughout my life. Without a doubt, this film pretty much became everyone’s point of reference for anything related to the autism spectrum and changed people’s way of perceiving its related disorders. Whether that’s good or bad is irrelevant; the point is, it left a mark. Personally, I found the movie enjoyable and I would definitely recommend it, but I can’t say it completely blew my socks off.
Tom Cruise plays Charlie Babbitt, a selfish jerk who tries to make a living by selling Lamborghinis in Los Angeles. When he finds out that his estranged father has just died, he drops everything to attend the funeral in Ohio, but hold on; he doesn’t do this because he actually has a heart, but because he knows there’s a potential inheritance involved. However, he quickly learns that his father’s 3 million dollar estate has been left to someone else, and that someone else turns out to be Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman), an autistic man living in a mental institution. Even better, Ray is actually his brother. That’s right, his parents kept his brother a secret his entire life.
Still, Charlie is a bit less preoccupied with processing the existence of his new family member, and a bit more preoccupied with finding a way to get his money. He decides to kidnap Ray from the institution so he can either demand half of the estate in exchange for his safe return, or attempt to gain custody of him and thus gain control of the estate. The plan is to go back to L.A., but Charlie quickly realizes that travelling with Ray is quite a challenge because he’s used to very rigid routines and does not have the same social cues as your average person. After Raymond adamantly refuses to fly, the two embark on a road trip back to L.A.
Let me just start by saying that Dustin Hoffman is phenomenal. I’ve slowly started discovering more of his movies and I just can’t get over how good he is. His performances are consistently out of this world and his portrayal of Raymond Babbit is no exception. At times it feels a bit too much like a caricature, but I don’t think that’s his fault: it’s what the filmmakers were going for and Hoffman really made the best of it.
The plot of Rain Man is very formulaic, and all the characters are pretty much one-dimensional, but it’s easy to understand why: the movie is made to appeal to mass audiences. Autism was a brand new topic to tackle at the time, and everything about it had to be accessible enough to the general public. As a result, the movie turned out to lack a bit of depth at the expense of a series of gimmicks and occasionally moving episodes. There’s nothing wrong with that and I’m actually happy it won; I just wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, per say.
Despite the cliched nature of the story, I appreciate that Barry Levinson did not try to turn this into a melodramatic tearjerker. Sure, there were a few moments here and there, but I don’t think it used more sentimentality than it needed. However, I would have toned down the fart jokes and often cringeworthy/childish humour. I understand that it’s not uncommon to experience moments like these with an autistic person, but the film often tried to exploit them for comedic purposes. I wish they stuck a bit more with the serious side.
In the end, Rain Man is still very heartfelt. I don’t want to spoil it too much, but one of the best moments is the scene where we find out where the film’s title comes from. It’s a beautiful reminder that deep down, humans mean well. We finally witness a more vulnerable side of Tom Cruise’s arrogant character, and a thoughtfully affectionate side of Dustin Hoffman’s character. After that, the film’s tone is never quite the same again. While it might not be the most complex and accurate movie out there, Rain Man will most likely remain a classic in people’s eyes.