By Marc S. Sanders
It may surprise some people that I don’t find Dustin Hoffman’s performance of autistic savant Raymond Babbitt to be the best feature in Barry Levinson’s Rain Man. On the contrary, the best thing about the film is Tom Cruise’s cynical, hyper active portrayal of Raymond’s younger brother Charlie. I’m not knocking Hoffman. He’s absolutely memorable, authentic and brilliant. It’s so brilliant though, that it overshadows what Cruise accomplished with his part.
Those of you who have read some of my reviews before, may recall how much I praise the best character arcs to be found in stories. The character starts out one way and by the time the conclusion arrives, this person is completely different; practically unrecognizable. Hoffman did this in Kramer Vs Kramer and Tootsie, Al Pacino did this in The Godfather. Bryan Cranston used five seasons of television to do this in Breaking Bad.
Before I ever saw Rain Man for the first time, many years ago, I never knew what autism was. I don’t even think I ever heard the word autistic before this film arrived. I guess I was wrapped in my naïve bubble. Now watching it years later, I see the special talents that autism can present for a person living with it, as well as the challenges that come with a person nearby who cannot comprehend the diagnosis, and carries no patience for it.
Screenwriters Barry Morrow and Ronald Blass are wise to show an odd pairing of brothers in this film. The movie begins when Charlie, deep in debt with his high-performance sports car dealership, learns that his estranged father has passed away. Dad only leaves him with a gorgeous 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible. A $3 million estate is awarded to a trust fund meant to support Raymond; the autistic brother Charlie does not recall ever having. Charlie’s arrogance and desperation to cover his insurmountable debts drive him to yank Raymond out of his care facility and embark on a cross country road trip back home where he intends to settle the estate by how he thinks he deservedly sees it. During the course of the trip, Charlie gets a quick education about himself and Raymond’s condition.
Tom Cruise might look like late 1980’s cool and stylish in his linen suits and button up silk shirts with sunglasses, but his glamour does not overshadow how bitter of a guy Charlie really is. That’s what I embrace in his performance here. It should have been nominated for an Oscar; definitely a glaring oversight by the Academy. Charlie looks like a guy always moving at super speed, about to collide with a wall. He bosses around his assistant salesman with outbursts and disruptive clapping hands. Levinson is good at showing close edits of that. He gives no attention to his girlfriend, Sussana (Valerie Golino), even when she is trying her best to have him stop for a second and realize the special condition and attention that Raymond needs. As Charlie’s journey continues down the back wood roads of western America, he has no choice but to uncover a realization in his own hyperactivity, and even recognize a different kind of hyperactivity that Raymond possesses.
Raymond is the autistic person whose mental capacity must follow strict guidelines of watching The People’s Court and Jeopardy. He has to have to certain meals on certain days. He can not ride in a car when it is raining. He can not fly on airlines that carry historical statistics of crashing. Fire alarms and hot faucet water are violently upsetting. There is a rigid, uncompromising pattern to Raymond’s behavior and lifestyle. Because he can’t compromise, Rain Man carries some humorous and outrageous scenes where Charlie must adjust to Raymond’s limitations. I still feel sorry for the woman who has no choice but to surrender her television and living room in the middle of day so that Raymond can watch his program, while her children are deprived of their cartoons.
Hoffman is great in focus and concentration. Much like when he adopted the persona of a woman in Tootsie, you never see him sway from the performance of severe autism in his Raymond character. Because he is so straight down the line here from beginning to end, I have to really admire Cruise’s change in character over all. Rain Man really is a story about Charlie Babbitt. Not so much Raymond Babbitt. Charlie changes during the course of the film. Raymond does not.
There are a lot of eye-opening moments in Levinson’s film. You get an education in what autism really is, or at least the unique case that Raymond possesses. He can memorize a phone book in one night or count the number of tooth picks that have fallen on the floor with simply a glance. Complex multiplication can instantly be done in his head. It’s fascinating. Charlie even discovers a way for Raymond to resolve his financial crisis, thereby leading to an energetically satisfying jaunt in Las Vegas.
Barry Levinson has assembled two fantastic actors for an engaging film that avoids preachiness and sorrow. Yet, Rain Man is rewardingly sensitive. Levinson says a million words with simply a close up moment of Hoffman gently leaning his head on Cruise’s temple. Quiet moments like that which arrive following scatter brained moments earlier make for a range of emotions I treasure in a picture like this.
I look at Rain Man or Magnolia or Born On The Fourth Of July, and I wish Tom Cruise would take a break from the endless Mission: Impossible films. Heck, there’s even another Top Gun film on its way! Why doesn’t he focus on the roles that welcome his skills as a very effective actor? (American Made was a recently oddly different kind of character for him. Great film by the way!) I have an affection for most of his films, regardless of the category. I really do. If only his action pictures could take a rest for a change, and allow the acting scenes to come back into play.