There are some movies so iconic that you probably know about them without having to watch them. That’s how I always felt about Rain Man. Obviously, it wasn’t something I was going to watch when it came out on account of being/having just been born. I think the first time I became aware of it as a film was an episode of The Simpsons. It was referenced in the episode when Mr Burns opens a casino and we see the main characters at Homer’s blackjack table. I guess over the years I figured I knew enough about the film to not waste my time watching it and I’ve never seen a problem with it. Thanks to this Throwback Thirty project I’m finally getting a chance to see the supposed Best Film containing the Best Acting performance of the year I was born. It seems like the kind of thing I should be watching instead of the all the B movie crap that makes up most of my TBT jar.
The treatment of people with mental health issues has changed dramatically since 1988 so it’s a little weird to hear the word “retard” thrown around so quickly when watching this in 2018. Still, I’m not going to turn this review into a rant about political correctness or whatever. It’s just a little weird. But I guess it’s to be expected from a story about a grown-man, Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), discovering he has a secret older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), who happens to be a high-functioning autistic savant. How does Charlie find out? When he is told that he didn’t inherit anything from his late father’s estate but a classic car and some rose bushes. The $3 million has, instead, been bequeathed to an unnamed trustee who turns out to be Raymond. In a misguided attempt to gain half of the fortune, Charlie kidnaps Raymond from the mental institute he has been living in for years. They set off on an epic road trip from Cincinnati to Los Angeles where Charlie hopes to gain custody of his brother in order to control the inheritance.
When it comes to narrative, Rain Man is often a bit thin and patchy in places. Many of the road trip scenes feel unnecessary and long. The film is over 2 hours in length but there is plenty of material that repeats itself. It could easily have been cut down to make the pace better. The overall emotional character development of Charlie Babbitt feels kind of superficial in the long run and is definitely rushed to give him some form of redemption. There is a single turning point in the relationship between the two and suddenly everything that has gone before is different. It doesn’t have a natural flow and deserved to build slowly and realistically.
However, this film is undeniably captivating. That comes down to the main performances and the direction. Director Barry Levinson manages to elevate the trite road trip movie with his visuals and gives it some more excitement. But, really, this is a film made on the performance of Dustin Hoffman as Raymond. His performance is superb. It feels so understated and there are times when it’s almost as if he’s not doing anything. However, it is a deep and intricate performance. It’s an exciting thing to see and you can see why he was so universally praised. Alongside him, Cruise perhaps gives one of the performances of his lifetime, which may not be saying much in the long run. Cruise is attempting real acting here and there are moments of understated brilliance in his performance. He has, potentially, the tougher job to do by acting against a man who is avoiding any emotional reaction.
Really, I’m glad that I finally watched Rain Man but I can’t say that it will become one of my favourite films. There are funny moments and some real tenderness. However, it is a bit up and down. There are definite things that don’t work and you can’t avoid the idea that in other hands it would have been a flop. There was every chance that the portrayal of an autistic man by a non-autistic actor could have turned into a horrible parody. Hoffman manages to keep it on the straight and narrow. Unlike the choppy narrative which moves all over the place.