Rating: R (sex, nudity, violence, profanity, alcohol/drug use, and frightening/intense scenes)
Length: 133 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 16, 1988
Directed by: Barry Levinson
Stars: 4 out of 5
When the audience first meets Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), he is wheeling and dealing his way through a financial crisis that threatens to destroy his classic car business. His loving yet cautious girlfriend Susanna (Valeria Golino) tries to help him, but Charlie shuts her out emotionally. One day, he receives word that his estranged father has died but left only a pittance of his fortune to Charlie. Believing this is a mistake, Charlie travels to the East Coast to claim his inheritance and find out why he didn’t get the full $3 million in his father’s estate.
After snooping around, Charlie finds out that the bulk of the money is in a trust fund for a man named Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman). Raymond is the autistic older brother that Charlie never knew he had, and the money was left in a trust fund to pay for the group home in which Raymond resides, which further angers Charlie. In a moment of weakness, Charlie kidnaps Raymond to take him to live in California. Raymond won’t fly because he is afraid of crashing, so Charlie picks up a classic car that is a part of his inheritance and begins a cross-country journey fraught with misunderstandings, incidents in restaurants, and even a trip to Las Vegas.
Charlie doesn’t understand how autism works and doesn’t realize just how much Raymond’s routine means to him. Whenever that routine is disrupted, Raymond begins hitting himself and screaming, something that Charlie just can’t understand. A lack of communication makes the whole situation more frustrating, until Charlie puts his guard down and begins to develop a real emotional bond with his brother. When ego and anger are set aside, things begin to improve dramatically, to the point where the audience can actually see Charlie and Raymond living together. Charlie must overcome the problems caused by his ongoing financial situation and the fact that he committed a crime by taking his brother across state lines. The script wisely doesn’t gloss over these issues, instead treating them with the gravity they demand. The result is a riveting movie about two men who are emotionally stunted for very different reasons. Raymond can’t change, but he brings massive amounts of change to Charlie’s life just by being his rigid, routine-driven self.
When “Rain Man” was released in the late 1980s, Cruise was in the heyday of his popularity as an actor. There wasn’t a film that his charisma couldn’t carry, and audiences responded by flocking to his movies in droves. The thought of one of his costars outshining him seemed impossible but that is exactly what Hoffman does as Raymond. Hoffman earned a richly deserved Oscar for the part, which required him to walk with his head cocked sideways and a limp-like gait that helped sell the role. His ability to delve deep into the mind of a grown man stricken with autism and the inability to communicate results in a performance that still holds up over two decades later. In fact, the entire film holds up well and doesn’t get mired down in the excess that marked so many films in the 1980s.
Director Levinson managed to bring a film to the big screen that was centered on a man who was incapable of emotional development and somehow made it work. For that success, he deserved the Oscar he won for Best Director. He drew fantastic performances out of the entire cast, including Cruise, who seemed happy to divert the spotlight onto Hoffman, making “Rain Man” all the better for his sacrifice. Golino gave a fine performance as the weary Susanna, who shares a particularly touching and tender moment with Raymond that is one of the highlights of the film.
Screenwriters Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow took home Oscars for the script, which involved a great deal of research. They took on the subject of autism, which was an unfamiliar one to most moviegoers at the time, and treated it with dignity and respect. They wrote Raymond as a very sympathetic, complex character, one whom audience members could root for. Bass, Morrow, and Hoffman helped put an actual face to autism, even if that face was fictional. The public awareness the film created is like the icing on the cake, because “Rain Man” is already a fantastic film without it.