The '80s. American cinema has a formula and it's sticking to it: monosyllabic musclemen blow shit up. This is what Reagan's children want to see. Not some buddy road movie about a tin-hearted yuppie learning to love his autistic brother. Mind you, $413 million and four Oscars (Film, Director, Actor, Original Screenplay) tell a different story...
Watched now, Barry Levinson's drama makes for intriguing viewing: a carefully assembled mix of art and commerce, contrivance and originality. It opens with young hustler Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) learning of his father's death, the old bastard leaving him nothing more than a '49 Buick. The remainder of the $3-million estate goes to Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), Charlie's autistic brother. The kicker? Charlie never even knew he had a brother.
From here, Rain Man veers into established road-movie territory, Charlie determining to get "his" money by kidnapping Ray from his Cincinnati care home and driving him back to LA. It's an excursion that conveniently takes place on back roads, Ray's fear of planes and interstates allowing Levinson to wallow once more in Diner-esque Americana. And it's a physical exploration that's inevitably paralleled by a psychological one, Charlie's inner journey unspooling with each passing mile. Standard stuff, maybe, but Levinson maps out his route with assurance, while Cruise motors along his predestined arc with conviction.
Where Rain Man surprises, however, is in its truthful portrayal of Raymond, the filmmakers acknowledging that an autistic savant would finish this pilgrimage exactly where he began. Think about it: this is a guy who can memorise the phone book from A to G in one night but has no concrete concept of love; who can tally 246 spilt toothpicks in a second, but who's incapable of subtracting 50 cents from a dollar. He is what he is.
Hoffman inhabits the role with Method precision, but this isn't an exercise in tricks and tics. It's warmer than that, inviting us to care. To fall in love. We do, of course, and our connection startles because we don't see it coming - - Hoffman rarely softens, sculpts or styles his autistic behaviour to lure us in. Instead we get spin-cycled phrases ("'I'm an excellent driver'"), mimicked sound effects ("Ka-Boom!") and Abbott and Costello's "Who's on first base?" routine - - repeated, mantra-like, by Raymond until we're ready to join Charlie in his screaming. Of course, it's annoying. But it's also funny, touching and true, striking chords without ever reducing Raymond to a performing puppy. Definitely.