Wednesday 19 May 2010

Rain Man (1988)

Director: Barry Levinson
Stars: Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I can't quite put my finger on why Rain Man feels a little empty to me but I think it may boil down to Tom Cruise. Made when he could still be credited after someone else, this is another eighties movie where he got to be an annoying pissant with an attitude. He was the poster child for this sort of thing in the eighties, but he had a habit of making us care anyway. At least I cared, just a little, in Risky Business when he was up against the odds, in Top Gun when everyone else had the attitude too, even in The Color of Money when he at least had the talent to back it up. Here, though, he's just annoying. There are points in the film where something shines through, some depth, some character, to take the edge off the yuppie who cares so little about everyone else that the only way we can get a story is to partner him with an autistic character who is unable to comprehend human emotions. I see Rain Man less as a buddy movie and more as just desserts.

Cruise is Charlie Babbitt, a yuppie car salesman of all things, who lives the American dream by selling expensive foreign cars by the seat of his pants and making $75,000 with a few phone calls. He's good, naturally, even though he often still looks like he's only just out of high school, like we're watching Joel Goodsen a year on from Risky Business. Away from business, though, he can't even talk to his token cute foreign girlfriend on the way to Palm Springs and can only come up with 'Aha!' when he gets the call that his father has died. He does show up for the funeral but when he goes back to the house, he doesn't want to look at the family photos that she hones in on, just the 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible in the garage that he's lusted after for years. It turns out that it was this car that inadvertently caused the rift between Sanford and son that was never healed up until the day that Sanford Babbitt died. Most notably, Charlie never tried.

Thus far I have precisely no sympathy for Charlie Babbitt and it takes me a long while to find the precious little I'll end up with. Up till now I'm siding entirely with the characters who suffer him patiently, especially his girlfriend Susanna who must have a plentiful reservoir of patience just to avoid slapping some sense into him. It isn't surprising when she finally leaves him. 'What do you want from me?' he asks her. 'Out,' she says and she's gone. I'm with his father, who may have had difficulty in showing love but at least tried to teach his son about life. The rift began when Charlie took the Roadmaster out for a drive, against his father's explicit wishes, just because he felt he deserved it after a decent report card. Daddy reported it stolen and left him in jail for two days. I've only known him for ten minutes and I wish he'd left him there for good. He leaves him the Roadmaster in his will, along with his prize winning rose bushes.

Of course, Charlie wants rose bushes about as much as wanted his father, which is to say not at all. What he wants is his estate worth three million dollars which goes into trust instead, and I'm with the lawyer who reads him the will, including some last unwanted advice from his father that explains his reasoning but which Charlie just ignores or misunderstands completely. As we've already discovered from what we see of his business practices, Charlie is successful because he never says die, however much he has to lie and cheat to get there, so it isn't surprising to find him following through on the secret trustees and finding himself at Wallbrook, a care home for behaviourally challenged patients. I'm with Dr Bruner, who runs the place and finds talking to Charlie a trying task. Most of all I'm with Raymond Babbitt, whose carefully ordered life is about to be turned upside down by his younger brother's lust for financial gain.

You see, Raymond is the brother Charlie never even knew he had. He suffers from autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder which manifests itself in many different ways but with certain key commonalities, such as changing the ability of the brain to process information and impairing the abilities of social interaction and communication. That still leaves a wide spectrum for those with the disorder to occupy, contrary to the expectations of many who were first exposed to it through this movie. Raymond Babbitt is a high functioning autistic and an autistic savant, what used to be called an idiot savant, someone who can perform incredible feats at one thing but pparently at the expense of others. Raymond is a speed calculator and has an eidetic memory, but he can't subtract and he doesn't understand the concept of money. He recites Abbott and Costello's Who's on First? routine when he's nervous because he can't understand the riddle.

What keeps Raymond happy, like most autistic people, are rituals and routines which protect his place in the world. He knows precisely how everything in his room is positioned and he finds comfort in knowing which food will be served on which day and when his TV programmes will come on. Even knowing the address of the KMart where his underwear comes from is an anchor for Raymond and Wallbrook serves him well. Yet into his life comes Charlie, pissed at the world and especially his father for not leaving him the estate, who naturally does what he does best: cheat. So he effectively kidnaps his brother, whether that's illegal or not in this instance, and holds him to ransom for half of the three million dollars. As he explains to Susanna before she leaves, he took him because they want him and he'll keep him until he gets half. 'What is my goddamn crime?' he asks her, as if he honestly doesn't understand the moral issues.

Even after a couple of viewings I still can't decide if the next hour of road movie until we reach a revelation is a joy or a curse. It's certainly fascinating to watch Dustin Hoffman on his way to a second Academy Award, though sometimes it's less fun to watch the character and more the actor staying resolutely in character by avoiding eye contact with everybody. As Charlie annoys us continually on their journey to LA to take care of business, we're rewarded by Raymond doing the same to Charlie. He frustrates his every move, without ever intending to. He won't fly for flying is dangerous but he doesn't point that out until he's almost on the plane. He won't drive on the freeway for freeways are dangerous too but he doesn't point that out until he's on one at a stop because there's an accident up ahead. He won't even go outside when it rains. Watching Tom Cruise be tormented is a crazy reason to stick with a movie but it's a satisfactory one.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this half of the film is that we pick up exactly who and what Raymond is in a few minutes of screen time so find ourselves watching Charlie catch up only to get frustrated when he persistently fails to do so. He has no clue what autism is and he really doesn't care, even initially believing that it can be cured. His attitude is most apparent in his habit of turning his back on his brother to make phone calls even though Raymond has a habit of wandering off every time he does this. It's not that Charlie is stupid or that he's unable to learn, it's that he's quintessentially selfish and unable to register the importance of anyone except himself. Sure, he does plenty for Raymond: finding the right sort of food, moving the beds over to the window, even stopping at a house in the middle of nowhere so his brother won't miss The People's Court. Yet really it's all for himself because without Raymond there's no money.

The first time he does something for his brother without thinking of himself happens an hour into the movie, when he helps Raymond off a crosswalk where he's holding up traffic because the sign changed to Don't Walk and he took it literally. Doing the right thing without thought doesn't last long for Charlie but it comes back with a vengeance almost exactly halfway through the film when he comes to a major realisation and so do we. While he knows Raymond is his brother, it hasn't meant anything except half of three million bucks, but in a roadside motel he discovers that Raymond is the Rain Man of the title, in his mind just an imaginary friend he forgot when he grew up. Of course Rain Man is just Raymond, as spoken by a two year old. Quickly he discovers a real connection. Raymond remembers him, in detail, and he was moved to Wallbrook because the family thought he was a danger to him, because of some incident in the bath.

The realisation we come to is that Tom Cruise isn't just playing himself, because suddenly some humanity surfaces in the character and we see a path to redemption for Charlie Babbitt. No, he doesn't stop being a yuppie or magically see the error of his ways and that's a good thing, for changes on that scale are reserved for visions of the divine, but there's a change nonetheless, even as he suddenly realises on the other side of Las Vegas just how much money he can make off a savant who can count a six deck shoe and the old gleam comes back. Rain Man runs for 133 minutes and that's far too long for a one revelation movie, but there had to be something to build up to these few minutes when suddenly the two characters connect. Hoffman has been excellent throughout but it's here that Cruise makes his presence worthwhile, especially as these scenes were shot in a single take. Sometimes humanity must out, even with Scientologists.

Bizarrely Hoffman was originally going to play Charlie until he met a savant called Leslie Lemke, who suffers from cerebral palsy, brain damage and blindness but who can repeat anything he hears on the piano, up to complex classical concertos, by ear. Moved to tears, he chose to switch to Raymond and have the character rewritten from being mentally retarded to being an autistic savant, one of a number of changes he insisted on that led to the departure of original director Martin Brest and the eventual return of Barry Levinson, who had initially turned down the movie when it was offered to him in order to make Good Morning, Vietnam instead. Hoffman had some experience working in a psychiatric care home so drew on that to craft Raymond Babbitt, but he also spent a year with autistic men and their families, including savant Kim Peek who was writer Barry Morrow's initial inspiration for the character and who Morrow gifted with the Oscar he won.

Watching Rain Man unfold, I couldn't help but remember an earlier Hoffman movie that seemed to aim at the same sort of concept. 1969's Midnight Cowboy is centered around the growth and bonding of two characters who find themselves stuck with each other for an extended period of time, who share a deep and abiding non-sexual connection even though they have very different backgrounds and outlooks. Yet the longer this film ran, the more it didn't seem to live up to that expectation. The setup is the same and both films concentrate so closely on the lead characters that it's rare to see them leave the screen, but while both characters in Midnight Cowboy grow, only Charlie needs to change here, to leave selfishness behind and find compassion and family. Raymond Babbitt is what he is and change is the last thing he needs, given that he thrives on routine. That means that we should be watching Cruise but we're really watching Hoffman.

Rain Man succeeded by word of mouth rather than hype, which makes me a little guilty for not liking it more. Beginning so poorly that it debuted behind Twins with a mere $7m in ticket sales, it rose to the top of the box office a couple of weeks later and ended up as the highest grossing film of 1988, even though most of its gross was generated during the following year. It won the Best Picture Oscar, along with further wins for Hoffman's acting, Levinson's direction and the original screenplay by Morrow and Ronald Bass. It's kept its place in the IMDb Top 250, though only just, and critics who initially found flaws have raised it in their esteem to being one of the best pictures of the eighties. For my part, I'm still seeing the flaws and honestly doubt I'll be back for a third viewing. Cruise is too annoying, the movie is too long and the songs have no apparent connection to the story, with both Iko Iko and Dem Bones finding their way in for some reason.

The most telling line comes towards the end when director Barry Levinson steps in as a doctor to evaluate the newfound relationship of the Babbitts. As only a week has passed since Charlie demanded a million and a half bucks for the return of his brother, the doctor is a little skeptical of his motives, even though he's now turning down cheques with no strings attached and he explains his actions as caused by distress over his father's death. 'So last week you were upset,' the doctor sums up, 'and this week you suddenly found some devotion for your brother and you want to take care of him for the rest of your life.' We can't help but wonder too whether Charlie has done enough and I'd vote he hasn't. It all sounds trite in summary, however much Hans Zimmer left strings out of his score to avoid sentimentality. Only because Hoffmann pushed for a very particular ending does Charlie not get what he wants and that's the film's saving grace.

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