I had intended to post this review earlier today. But, my body is sort of a mess right now. It’s a new school semester, and my body, long accustomed to sleeping in til well after noon, is fighting a hard fight against my intention to wake up every day no later than 10 AM. Case in point, I fell asleep after a full 16 hour day Monday night at around 2 AM but I woke up at 5 AM and was unable to fall back asleep until around 10 AM. I slept til 1:30 PM (when I had to get up for class), got back home at around four and slept til I left for work. My body doesn’t know what to do with itself. I have to be up at 9:30 AM today (so Wednesday morning) but it’s almost 2 and despite taking a sleeping pill, my body doesn’t want to go to sleep. I am, however, hell bent on correcting myself even if that means operating on minimal amounts of sleep on those days that I don’t work. I’ll do that if I have to. This is all meant to say that my blogging may be taking a backseat because of this (also cause of all of the homework I have to do).
It is a sort of weird, almost divine providence that I wound up reviewing Rain Man a little less than two weeks after I reviewed Forrest Gump. On the surface, one could be forgiven for thinking they’re two similar films. They both involve a mentally disabled man that possesses astounding gifts who uses said gifts to enrich the lives of those around them. Praise the heavens that the surface is where these two films’ similarities end. Rain Man is, as I will posit, the anti-Forrest Gump. Where the latter deals in trite sentimentality, unearned emotional manipulation, and patently absurd twists of plot (it is the trope codifier for the “magical retard” [sorry for the offensive word]), Rain Man is firmly planted in the real world and though a clear emotional arc is traveled, an autistic savant doesn’t magically solve the problems of everyone around him.
For those who’ve not seen the truly great bit of 80s filmmaking from director Barry Levinson (Diner), Rain Man is a genuinely moving (if occasionally predictable) spin on one of the most American genres of film, the road movie. A fast-talking, self-centered yuppie, Charlie Babbit (The Color of Money‘s Tom Cruise), finds out that his estranged father has died, and along with his Italian fiancee, Susanna (Valeria Golino), makes the trip from L.A. to Cincinnati for his father’s funeral and the reading of his will. But, Charlie finds out that all his father left him was a classic convertible and prize-winning rose bushes, not the $3 million estate that should have been his birthright. With some minor investigation, Charlie finds out that his father left all of his money to Raymond Babbit (Wag the Dog‘s Dustin Hoffman), an autistic savant living in a mental institution that is also the older brother that Charlie never knew he had.
And thus, as a bargaining tool to extort the mental institution’s head caretaker to give Charlie the $3 million that’s been set aside in a trust for Raymond, Charlie decides to kidnap his brother since Raymond’s stay in the hospital is voluntary and no one established an official conservatorship of Raymond after the dead of their father. But, Charlie quickly learns that caring for his brother will be much more work than he bargained for. Raymond is unable to process emotion and information in a way even remotely similar to normal people, and he is a slave to the routines of his life. If he doesn’t eat certain foods at certain times or misses his shows at their scheduled time or doesn’t wear clothes from a specific K-Mart, he starts to snap. Throw in a massive crisis in Charlie’s personal life, and the caretaking of Raymond proves to be an almost insurmountable obstacle. But, as Charlie and Raymond make their way across America, Charlie learns that maybe he can love this brother he never met.
It almost goes without saying at this point that Dustin Hoffman’s performance in this film is one of the greatest screen performances of all time. Not to belabor my anti-Forrest Gump analogy, but in that film, one would be forgiven for thinking Gump wasn’t really retarded in a traditional sense. He was just slow. I’ve known non-retarded types in real life that are easily dumber than Forrest Gump. You believe for every second that he’s on screen that Hoffman has autism. Hoffman is one of the most famous actors of all time, and despite that, he completely disappears into the role of Raymond. Hoffman’s preparation for the role (he spent a year living with a real life autistic savant) is evident throughout the whole picture. And though Raymond is a very static character (more on that later), Hoffman finds a subtlety and range in his performance that is stunning.
However, despite his Best Actor win at the 1988 Academy Awards, Raymond is not the main character of the film. That’s Charlie, and it’s his arc of emotional growth that defines the film, for better and (slightly) for worse. As I said, Raymond is a static character. Any change he experiences over the course of the film is minor at best. He’s not capable of changing. He doesn’t operate under normal human terms. It’s Charlie’s turn from a greedy, narcissistic yuppie into a compassionate brother that cares more about being allowed to take care of his brother than his $3 million inheritance that makes the film. And unlike the way that Forrest touches everyone’s life, the relationship that forms between Raymond and Charlie is believable and emotionally wrenching. I am incapable of watching this film without crying every single time we make it to the custody hearing at the end of the film.
It’s too easy to give all of the credit in this film to Dustin Hoffman. His performance is practically iconic at this point. But, let’s not forget that for a brief window in the late 1980s, Tom Cruise was an A-list talent, not just because of his stunning good looks (though that was clearly part of it), but also because of his natural talents as an actor. If you can watch Born on the Fourth of July and question Cruise’s acting creds, you don’t understand good acting. And because Charlie is the main character and because we have to believe his emotional journey of the film, the greatest burden of Rain Man nearly falls on Cruise’s shoulders. And though Charlie isn’t as great a Cruise creation as Ron Kovic, Cruise was expertly cast as the charming but soulless yuppie who is able to find himself in the presence of his brother.
Besides the fact that I don’t think Hoffman should have won Best Actor that year (he should have won Best Supporting Actor), my complaints about Rain Man are minimal at worst. Occasionally, the road trip segments of the film drag or seem repetitive. The business crisis that Charlie must race back to L.A. to thwart is thinly explained at best. And, despite my general love of this film’s emotional arc, occasionally it does seem like some moments are too neatly resolved. Particularly, any scene between Raymond and Charlie’s fiancee cross the line from genuine sentiment to Forrest Gump-style emotional manipulation (though, the movie is just as likely to subvert that later so maybe I shouldn’t actually complain). Whereas many film’s about mental disabilities unfairly play on audience’s emotions and sympathies, Rain Man manages to be painfully realistic yet still deliver a moving emotional through line. What more can you ask for?
Final Score: A-