Welcome back, one and all, to my New Year’s Resolution! It’s been a great way for me to finally watch films I’ve always wanted to and look back on old favorites. The rules are the same as the have been for the past two years, and it’s time for me to start by scratch a major film off my watchlist.
This road-trip dramedy was originally released in theaters worldwide by MGM on December 16th, 1988. Made for the middling budget of $25 million, it went on to gross over $354.8 million at the box office. This made it the highest-grossing U.S. film of that year, despite competition from the likes of Die Hard and Twins. Critically acclaimed, it went on to win and be nominated for several year-end accolades, including top honors at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival. It also managed to win 4 Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Picture, out of 8 total nominations.
Directed by Barry Levinson, the Oscar-winning screenplay was originally written by Barry Marrow before being polished by Ronald Bass. The characters and story were inspired by Kim Peek and Bill Sackter, two real-life savants who Marrow met by chance. The final draft was delivered a few hours before the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike started, preventing any further rewrites during filming. There was also a controversy when 15 major airlines omitted a pivotal scene from the film, except for the Australian based Qantas whose safety records become more well-known afterwards.
Tom Cruise stars as Charlie Babbitt, a selfish young wheeler-dealer who tries importing cars against the EPA’s rules. When his estranged father dies, he travels to Cincinnati to hear the will reading and presumably inherit his vast amount of money and assets. However, he learns that his father’s entire fortune has been bequeathed to his older brother Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman, who’s lived much of his life in a group home due to his autism and savant syndrome. Together, they embark on a cross-country roadtrip to change the legal status of their inheritance and form an unusual bond along the way.
Full disclosure for everyone reading this: I am an adult male diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I have been on the spectrum for as long as I can remember and it has been a major defining part of my life and personality. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve truly become interested in researching the topic and I’d even go as far as to say that it has helped shape my passion for movies and storytelling. It’s something I’ve become comfortable with, and I’m proud of the resilience it has given me over time.
Despite this, with a few exceptions, I have rarely seen a portrayal of the condition in mainstream media. Shows and films such as Atypical, The Accountant, and Barfi have attempted to normalize it for neurotypical people in recent years, but I had never seen the one that had put it on the map for more people. As a serious depiction of autism, I have a couple of issues with it. But as a film on its own, Rain Man is still a pretty engaging and entertaining road movie to watch after 32 years.
The way they handle Raymond’s condition was much more sensitive than I had anticipated and it definitely gets a lot of things right. Many of his on-screen mannerisms, such as talking to himself and frequent panic attacks or outbursts, are remarkably accurate to the general symptoms of autism. It also gets points for showing how Charlie, a cold and selfish person, initially tries to manipulate Raymond for his own purposes before gradually changing his mind; that really hit close to home for me.
Where Rain Man falters here, aside from just being a typical roadtrip movie, is that it almost implies that all people on the spectrum are savants who are cut off from normal human emotions. This makes Raymond seem almost robotic during his time on-screen, and it feels way too simplified to have a full impact. But at the same time, I have to give Levinson and Co. some credit for at least trying to do something realistic with it, especially for the time it was made in.
In one of the earlier roles of his storied career, Tom Cruise delivers the goods here as Charlie Babbitt. At the beginning of the film, he’s a callous and narcissistic older brother who wants no responsibility that doesn’t result in his own personal gain. And while he tries to use Raymond’s incredible mathematic skills for his benefits, he soon comes to realize that having a relationship with his brother is far more important.
Valeria Golino is also worth mentioning as Susanna, Charlie’s level-headed girlfriend and business partner. She constantly tries to put Charlie on the right path and often tries to shoot down some of his schemes when they clearly only benefit him. As the film goes along, she starts to see his softer side as the influence of Raymond begins to show on the both of them.
And then, we have Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt, the role that won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. It’s easy to see why his performance was so acclaimed at the time of release and why it’s so controversial now. As mentioned earlier, Hoffman plays the role rather robotically, only showing real emotion during big outbursts. A huge part of me really wishes that had actually cast someone on the spectrum for the role rather than a neurotypical actor, but then again, the film might not have gotten made.
That being said, Hoffman does a pretty good job at showing his character’s insecurity when things don’t go according to his routine. It may seem a little childish at first, but it soon becomes clear that this is the only way that Raymond can cope with the real world, which he has never lived in as an adult. Seeing the way average people dismiss him because of his behavior is heartbreaking, especially since he can’t really express himself or his feelings in a “normal” way.
And from a technical perspective, Rain Man fits right into the pack of late 80s movies. John Seale’s cinematography tries to capture the sense of a sprawling road trip, with sweeping shots across the countryside. Being shot on location helps make it feel like an authentic look through a part of Americana. There are also a number of medium close-ups to help get intimate with the characters in small moments.
This works decently with the editing job by Stu Linder. It’s a very straightforward and unpretentious method he uses to cut the film together. There are only cuts whenever there need to be for the story or for when the emotions start running high, instead opting mostly for longer takes. The lack of flare allows for the characters to take center stage here.
In one of his earliest works in Hollywood, Hans Zimmer provides the instrumental film score. It essentially serves as a guideline for all his scores to come because it is a genuinely good, if not quite memorable one. You can hear his signature style of blending electronic sounds with that of a more traditional orchestral sound. The main theme is an interesting theme that doesn’t really feel sentimental but still feels appropriate for what Charlie and Raymond go through. The trademark 80s synthesizer and percussion is ever present throughout as it sets the tone for the adventure to come.
A clear product of its time, Rain Man is a somewhat problematic mishmash of genuinely good intentions. Barrys Levinson and Marrow do work within the confines of a traditional road trip movie but still put forth a lot of effort to take its subject matter seriously. It’s also a great showcase for a pre-action Tom Cruise and a performance from Dustin Hoffman that, for better or worse, has made its way into film history.
As someone on the spectrum, I’m still trying to work out my exact feelings on how it treats autism. I can definitely respect the attempts the filmmakers made at painting a more accurate picture of the condition, but there’s still a long way to go.