Archive Review: Rain Man (1988) – 4/5 Stars

“Rain Man” might be most remembered for Dustin Hoffman’s brave and remarkable performance as autistic savant Raymond Babbitt, but the film’s greatest strength lies elsewhere: its sense of humor. At first, you’re inclined not to laugh at Raymond’s oddities and especially not at the way his brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) treats him, but as the film progresses, you become less worried about being respectful and suddenly “Rain Man” is really just a film about two brothers on the road together, sometimes sharing funny moments, sometimes sharing tough ones — but who discover something about themselves through their newfound relationship.

“Diner ” director Barry Levinson, who has always carried his sense of humor about him in all his projects, is responsible for much of this tone to what is a challenging story. Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow do write in some humor, but when summarized, this film does not have a pleasant story line. It’s about a young man who’s angry that his father left him nothing upon his death, finds out it all went to an autistic brother he never knew he had and in his rage, as sort of a ransom, kidnaps his brother and heads for L.A. 

Cruise plays an unlikable yuppie with no patience or sympathy for his brother’s condition. He’s entirely selfish and blinded by deep-seated father issues having grown up without a mother and leaving his father after a dispute at age 16. It’s a good role for Cruise, having played rebellious younger characters in “Top Gun” and “Risky Business” at this point in his career, it was a good fit that smoothly transitioned him into a more dramatic role, establishing him as more than just the latest fashion. 

Charlie’s change is the most significant in the film, and though it’s hard to believe he’s not being selfish about Ray from beginning to end, it’s the transformation in his sense of humor that really sells us. At first he’s funny because of how he overreacts to his frustrations in taking care of Ray, but once he understands him, it becomes sweet and genial.

Raymond is Hoffman at his finest, maybe the height of his career after “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Tootsie.” Playing the mentally challenged is done so little because it’s such a difficult thing and a touchy subject that Hoffman had to have handled with incredible sensitivity as he was developing the character. The real genius in his acting is in his eyes. You can always tell he’s counting or paying attention to details and he’s mesmerized by the world around him. That sort of guides how he interacts with the characters. Levinson picks up on this and subsequently gets a lot of scenic footage, namely Las Vegas where Raymond is fascinated by everything that sparkles.

The troublesome part of the story is that it glamorizes Ray’s savant abilities and at one point takes advantage of them with little remorse. At the same time, it’s clear that despite the opportunities for “Rain Man” to just lay on the sap, Levinson wants it to feel real. Even Hans Zimmer (in his first score) was forced to keep the score electronic ’80s style, which while awful is a distinct choice in tone.

In real life, Charlie probably wouldn’t treat his brother all that much better, he would just appreciate him differently. This is not about changing one’s life forever, its about the experience and rewards of brotherhood. All the way to the ending, there’s not but a brief moment that would make you want to cry, just be happy that the characters both got something positive out of the experience.

4/5 Stars

Directed by: Barry Levinson
Written by: Barry Morrow, Ronald Bass
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman


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