Director Barry Levinson
Screenplay Barry Morrow, Ronald Bass
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Valeria Golino, Bonnie Hunt, Beth Grant
It was sometime after Dick Tracy, right about the time he was in the film Hero, that I wondered if the magic for Dustin Hoffman was finally gone. Hook is a massacre even without Hoffman. The air had finally gone out of the balloon, and Rain Man was a distant memory for me. It’s probably the one film that I had watched most on VHS from a recording I made. I bought it on dvd, then blue ray, but I never did watch it until it arrived as an Oscar film sale on digital. After all these years, it all came back to life for me. Every word. Every stare by Charlie Babbitt not returned by his autistic brother, Raymond. All of it one giant emotional sweep.
“Sally Dibbs. Dibbs, Sally.”
“I’m an excellent driver.”
“246 total. (toothpicks)”
“QANTAS. QANTAS never crashed.”
“Uh oh. Fart.”
“Charlie Babbitt squeezed and pulled and hurt my neck in 1988.”
“Of course it’s 10 minutes to Wapner.”
Of course, who could forget Wapner, or any of these classic lines. In a performance that likely would be considered “problematic” in today’s woke culture, Dustin Hoffman helped introduce me to a nephew who would not be born for almost 20 years. I understand that he’s thinking, even if he doesn’t make eye contact. He’s understanding, even if he is talking about nothing in the ballpark of what is dominating my mind. Most of all, he is functioning, even highly so, albeit differently than other people function. Even if it wasn’t played by a real “autistic person” it is a lived in experience for millions who learned from Rain Main right alongside Charlie Babbitt.
Charlie Babbitt is likely the pinnacle of the Tom Cruise “brash and cocky” archetype after Top Gun. What most people don’t realize is had he been anyone else with that same performance, he would have been considered for an Oscar as well. His performance is the vehicle for the viewer to connect with Raymond. What is an unfunny joke at first, turns into a burden, then a loving relationship. If he is overbearing, it’s because Cruise is brave enough to make himself the bad guy, at least temporarily. He says the things that many of us think but are afraid to say. He does the heavy lifting so the viewer does not have to reach those depths.
Susanna: You use me, you use Raymond, you use everybody.
Charlie: Using Raymond? Hey Raymond, am I using you? Am I using you Raymond?
Charlie: Shut up! He is answering a question from a half hour ago!
Hoffman is astounding. From my estimation he only makes eye contact just once. His is the most method of acting. It feels frantic and real. The viewer keeps thinking they may lose him if he wanders out of the lens. Hoffman’s distance inside himself creates the feeling of fondness that can never be completed with human touch as we know it. If he is isolated, his brother has been too. The discovery of sibling closeness feels genuine on both sides.
Levinson’s touch is remarkably deft. He is camera makes no judgement, and does not force us to an obvious conclusion. We don’t get any characters chastising Charlie for his obvious missteps. Morrow and Bass’ screenplay is a mixture of obvious inspiration on the subject of Raymond, but a well written journey for his brother and his own self-inflicted personal issues. If it seems far fetched someone would kidnap his autistic brother for jealousy, the path to understanding is so intricate it works at every stop.
I have never come across someone who has a bad thing to say about Rain Man, but if it were released today, I am sure someone could complain. Thank God it came out in 1988.
(***** out of *****)