For better or for worse, “Rain Man” is the film that introduced autism to pop culture. Dustin Hoffman’s dedicated performance as Raymond Babbitt, an idiot savant, has been referenced in television shows, movies, and even a Ricky Gervais monologue. The performance earned him an Academy Award, but special mention should also go to Tom Cruise for playing a character that begins as a greedy opportunist and evolves into a caring individual. It seems unlikely Hoffman and Cruise could play brothers, but the scene in Las Vegas when they dance together greatly helps to suspend your disbelief.
This movie was a rental from about seven years ago at my mom’s suggestion. She had seen it; I am guessing back when it first came out in 1988, and fondly described the story and Hoffman’s performance. I guess anybody who was alive in the 80s saw that performance as part of that era’s pop culture. Since I was born in the 80s and didn’t exactly feel like watching that movie when I was two years old, renting it was a good opportunity to watch a movie both mom and I can appreciate. Good thing, because the older I get, the less movies we watch together. She and I aren’t going to sit down any day soon to watch John Woo’s “The Killer.”
“Rain Man,” directed by Barry Levinson, tells a much more family-friendly comedy/drama that can be enjoyed by everyone. Charlie Babbitt (Cruise), a car dealer from Los Angeles is in danger of losing a good chunk of cash if he cannot find a way to import four Lamborghinis for his business. He believes his troubles are over when he learns of his estranged father’s death and travels to Cincinnati for the reading of the will. Unfortunately, all Babbitt senior left him is a classic Buick Roadmaster and several prize rose bushes. However, three million dollars are donated to a mental institution that is the home of Raymond (Hoffman) the brother he never knew he had.
Raymond is autistic, and with Hoffman’s performance it means he shows very little human expressions, adheres to strict routines, and has superb counting skills. This is of little interest to Charlie, who only wants a way to obtain those three millions. Charlie essentially kidnaps Raymond and takes him on a cross-country trip to Los Angeles where his attorneys will begin a custody battle over the money. He will use Raymond as a bargaining chip with the hospital so they can maintain custody of Raymond in exchange for the money. That move is so repulsive Charlie’s girlfriend (Valeria Golino) leaves him right then and there.
The story then switches into a road movie, hence the inheritance of a convertible, as Charlie and Raymond drive to Los Angeles. Along the way Charlie will learn it is not easy to take care of a mentally disabled man by himself. When Raymond misses a part of his routine, such as watching a TV show at a specific time, he throws a fit, forcing Charlie to find a television set as quickly as possible. He also learns that Raymond is actually Rain Man, a protective figure from his childhood he always thought was a figment of his imagination, and that there is a reason his brother’s existence was kept from him.
That Charlie and Raymond will bond by the time they arrive in Los Angeles is both inevitable and predictable. Regardless, the movie succeeds in charming you thanks to the work of its two leads. Hoffman is in character for the whole film, playing a man who isn’t completely there, but still manages to develop affection towards a man who initially wants to exploit him. Tom Cruise has a role just as challenging by playing a man, who is greedy enough to use Raymond’s counting skills at a Las Vegas casino, but also human enough to realize he loves his brother.
I am no doctor, I don’t know if this is an accurate portrayal of a person with autism. However, it can’t be denied it is an endearing performance; worthy of all the awards Hoffman won for it. Although, having now seen “Tropic Thunder” it makes one wonder if Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t right when he said Hoffman won because he didn’t go “full retard” (his words) by having Raymond by a counting whiz. I just hope casinos don’t ban autistic people out of fear they could count the cards.
Oh, and, good one Mr. Gervais.