****/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras B+
starring Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Valeria Golino, Jerry Molen
screenplay by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow
directed by Barry Levinson
by Alex Jackson From its opening shot of a Cadillac craned across the smoggy Los Angeles skyline as The Belle Stars' iconic cover of "Iko Iko" plays on the soundtrack, Barry Levinson's Rain Man announces itself as one of the very best films of the 1980s. The ultimate high-concept movie, it has a fashionably icy Adrian Lynne/Michael Mann/Ridley Scott aesthetic that's semi-parodied by way of an absurdist, non-sequitur twist. Pauline Kael called Rain Man "a piece of wet kitsch" while paradoxically impugning its "lifelessness." In terms of content, it certainly sounds like sugary glurge, but as rendered in the emotionally-detached lexicon of '80s advertising, all the irony, all the junkiness, has been bled out. The film equates Yuppie materialism with autism, and in a subtle, underhanded way, this humanizes the alien while undermining the film's own pretension. Once we see this hip disengagement in terms of pathology, we're no longer attracted and/or repulsed by it.
Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) kidnaps his autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) from Wallbrook, a well-run and comfortable mental hospital in Cincinnati, with the intention of bringing him to Los Angeles. Their father, Sanford Babbitt, has just passed away and left his entire three-million dollar estate to Raymond while leaving Charlie nothing but his classic Buick Roadmaster convertible and award-winning rose bushes--his two "most-prized" possessions. Charlie's car dealership is in danger of going under. The four grey-market Lamborghinis he recently imported may not pass EPA regulations and both his lenders and buyers are growing anxious enough to pull out of the deal. Charlie wants half of Raymond's inheritance and is willing to hold his brother ransom to get it. As Raymond refuses to travel by plane, citing crashes for every commercial airline except Qantas, they are forced to take a six-day, cross-country trip by car, during which Charlie gradually eases into the role of Raymond's caretaker.
Charlie arrives at a turning point one night when he learns that Raymond was none other than "the Rain Man," a childhood imaginary friend who would rescue him whenever he was in trouble. Raymond was sent to Wallbrook following their mother's death and, as a panic attack over hot bathwater suggests, their father was concerned that Raymond might inadvertently hurt his baby brother. When he was sixteen, Charlie brought home a report card that was almost all "A"s and asked his father if he could borrow the Roadmaster for a celebratory drive with the guys. Dad said no, so Charlie helped himself to the keys. His father reported the vehicle stolen and Charlie was arrested. While their parents promptly bailed out his friends, Charlie was left to rot in jail for two days. He ran away from home after that and didn't speak to his father again.
This "Rain Man" reveal is a clunky bit of exposition. I'm especially...annoyed, I guess, that Raymond has his bathwater panic attack immediately afterwards. (The chaser, a closeup of a photo of young Raymond and baby Charlie that's floating in the bathtub, is the final insult.) By conventional standards, this is pretty crude screenwriting. An awful lot of information is inorganically crammed into this single scene. It's quite reductive, too--the film's "Rosebud" moment. Charlie's estrangement from his father and brother has essentially been narrowed down to a single incident, and his development into a loving brother is almost exclusively contingent on him learning of it. I never cared much for this scene, although I suppose I had resigned myself to the fact that few films are truly perfect and accepted that Rain Man had this one major flaw. Now I'm beginning to wonder if this clunkiness isn't intentional, or at least justifiable. That maybe this particular film needs a scene like that. I think we're meant to regard this "Rosebud" revelation as too pat and too simple and, consequently, to doubt Charlie's dramatic arc.
Shortly thereafter, Charlie takes Raymond to Las Vegas in the hope of earning back the money he lost from his business. Knowing that Raymond has a photographic memory, Charlie is going to have him to count cards at the blackjack table. I suppose that it's...I'd hesitate to say "good," but maybe "shrewd," storytelling to have this episode occur post-"Rosebud," giving us a chance to let the apparent change sink in while still having an engaging dramatic conflict (as the principal one of Charlie going crazy dealing with his autistic brother is largely resolved). In some weird way, this Vegas trip acts like a climactic action sequence that pays off all the emotional investment we've put into the film thus far. Without this sequence, I imagine I would feel frustrated and unsatisfied. Indeed, if you're making a movie about a man who has kidnapped his autistic brother and is driving West to L.A., to not stop in Las Vegas would be to toy with audience expectations for the sake of toying with them.
Yet even though Rain Man needs a sequence like this, and even though we understand that Charlie genuinely does need the money (while losing his dealership wouldn't be the end of the world, we appreciate not only that his identity and sense of self are inextricably tied into it, but also that should his business go under, his girlfriend Susanna (Valeria Golino) and close friend Lenny (Ralph Seymour) will be out of work as well), it nevertheless finds Charlie exploiting Raymond for personal gains. This is a highly questionable environment for a person with severe autism. A Vegas casino is noisy, there are lots of bright lights--it is just profoundly overstimulating. Incredibly, Raymond doesn't have a panic attack when faced with this sensory overload, but he very well could have and it's clear that Charlie hadn't considered that. During this episode, Raymond wanders off and loses a thousand dollars on the wheel of fortune. Charlie chastises him and tells him that this isn't his game. There seem to be only two reasons for including this scene: 1. To show that Raymond probably isn't getting much pleasure out of playing blackjack; and 2. To show us that Charlie is still kind of an asshole.
The penultimate scene in Rain Man has a psychiatrist (director Barry Levinson himself) interviewing Raymond and Charlie to make a custody recommendation to the court. He incredulously sums up the bulk of the film by saying to Charlie, "Last week you were upset. This week you suddenly found some devotion to your brother and want to take care of him for the rest of your life." I had always loved Charlie's one-word, affirmative response to that. I loved how blunt and understated it was and how it was romantic but unsentimental. After five days, he has decided that he wants to spend the rest of his life taking care of his brother, and he states this plainly as fact. Charlie has made the leap and he's not looking back. Perhaps we're conditioned to react positively to that because we accept this as a movie fantasy. In real-life terms, the psychiatrist has every reason to be skeptical. The more persuasive explanation for Charlie's response isn't that he's evolved from Raymond's kidnapper into his long-term caretaker, but that he's jumped into this role out of guilt and a lingering immaturity.
The Charlie Babbitt at the start of the film would surely make the shortlist of the most unlikeable contemporary screen protagonists. By the end, we begin to understand him more as a case study. There are times when Charlie demonstrates autistic behaviours similar to Raymond's. Told he was bequeathed his father's rose bushes, he sputters, "I got the rose bushes. I definitely got the rose bushes. I mean those are rose bushes." Charlie also has a deep but narrow interest in classic automobiles, and he compulsively trainspots them on the road, rattling off their model and year by rote.
Of course, Charlie is nowhere near as autistic as Raymond, but he's anti-social and self-absorbed enough to lend his disdain for Raymond's disability a certain irony. Moreover, he looks much more sympathetic viewed through this framework. We begin to see him as partially a victim of his own pathology. He's not heroic. Rain Man doesn't have any villains in it and if it did, Charlie still wouldn't be the hero of the piece. The picture ends with Raymond back at Wallbrook, and it's clear that this is the right thing for Raymond. But Charlie appears to be making major steps towards becoming the brother that Raymond needs. He's a work in progress.
Why exactly does learning that Raymond is "Rain Man" inspire Charlie to pursue the role of his primary caretaker? Well, it seems to demonstrate that Sanford did love him and was willing to make some hard choices to ensure his welfare. We might have the gut feeling that he "picked" the wrong son. Sanford sent Raymond to live in an institution and had Charlie stay, only for the younger son grow up to despise and eventually abandon him. Charlie's hatred of his father has transformed Sanford into a titan. His ambition and drive to succeed may stem from a desire to win his father's approval, to show him that he's worthy of driving that Buick Roadmaster. With the "Rain Man" discovery, Sanford is rendered frail and fallible, finally permitting Charlie to feel compassion and sympathy for him.
The situation is this: Sanford's wife, the mother of his children, has died and he is forced at age 47 to raise a 2-year-old and an adult with severe autism. He cannot do this on his own. Charlie himself can barely deal with Raymond and possibly he better understands where his father was coming from by the end of the film. Part of me wonders whether Charlie's ambition is motivated less by a desire for approval than by competition (it doesn't necessarily have to be either/or, natch). His father was obviously a multi-millionaire and perhaps Charlie wants to trump that success. This desire to be better than his father potentially informs his decision to take legal custody of Raymond. He wants to demonstrate that he's going to do what his father could not. I don't believe that Charlie's anger has yet to subsist. He likely has plenty of reasons to be angry, too. Charlie remembers his father as distant and cold and Wallbrook's Dr. Bruner (Jerry Molen), who identifies himself as a friend of Sanford, validates this perception. Charlie's additionally saddled with that horrible question, however: "Did my father give up the wrong son?" Shouldn't Sanford have sent Charlie to live with relatives and continued to look after Raymond? Charlie never decided to take on that burden of guilt. All he did was have the misfortune of being born two years before his mom died. He didn't know he was going to have to earn his place in the household, and what is he going to do now that he has squandered and denied what little love Sanford was willing to give?
Giving up the autistic adult and keeping the two-year-old is definitely more understandable than the alternative and the choice that society would deem the most morally acceptable. We can better reconcile an autistic man being institutionalized for being autistic than abandoning a two-year-old for being two years old. But why is this necessarily better? Is it because Sanford couldn't give Raymond the home he needed? He apparently wasn't much of a father to Charlie, either. Did he see Charlie as better able to provide emotional feedback and satisfy his needs as a parent? Did he expect Charlie to eventually grow up and leave where Raymond would not? Funny how all this worked out, isn't it? Charlie left at sixteen and he and Sanford never spoke again. Our culture likes to idealize parenthood as the one truly selfless act. You give everything to your kids and don't ask anything in return. Painfully, Sanford Babbitt's choice of Raymond over Charlie underlines how the parent/child relationship is as reciprocal as any other, in that the child has an implicit responsibility to serve the needs of the parent.
What I find so exciting about Rain Man is that it's superficially about Raymond and his disability, but as we dig deeper, we begin to see that it's actually about a more pervasive form of familial dysfunction. It's too simple, if not wholly inaccurate, to localize the appeal of Rain Man in its ability to be heartfelt without falling into mawkishness. I see it in a more roundabout way, in that we can't meaningfully differentiate Charlie in Ray-Bans from Raymond staring off into space, or Charlie's obsession with cars from Raymond's toothpick-counting. We may even reach the point where Charlie losing his business and Raymond missing "People's Court" are one and the same. It's a great joke, to think that Charlie and Raymond are "retarded" in essentially the same way, but once we realize that, we're opened up to an authentically compassionate reaction--that is to say, one that wasn't artificially manipulated. We're elated to see Charlie posthumously forgive his father, reunite with his girlfriend, and generally develop as a person. And the incredible thing is that we aren't happy for Raymond's sake, but for Charlie's.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
MGM's Blu-ray release of Rain Man is a HiDef port of their 2004 Special Edition. While the 1.85:1, 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is an improvement on the flatter, duller standard-definition release (the green lawns of Wallbrook are verdant and tactile), digital noise reduction has softened fine textures and created a need for minor edge enhancement. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is true to the original mix in its limited surround activity but sounds basically excellent, although I found a few of the semi-diegetic pop songs (such as "Dry Bones," heard as Charlie and Raymond enter Nevada) to get lost in the background.
The DVD's three (!) feature-length audio commentaries resurface here. Two things the participants have ensured that I know about the making of Rain Man: 1. The project went through four different directors: Martin Ritt, Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, and finally Barry Levinson; and 2. It was Levinson's idea to cast Valeria Golino in the role of Suzanna. The role initially called for a California blonde and Levinson felt that if they made her Spanish or Italian it would be easier to get some of the clunkier bits of exposition out of the way. (Frankly, her ethnicity also helps to cushion her (albeit righteous) outbursts of anger. I think having a California blonde yell this much would somehow render her unsympathetic.) For whatever reason, the commentators repeat these two items ad nauseam as if there were a test afterwards.
Levinson considers miscommunication to be a major theme of the film and explains that he chose the song "Iko Iko" for the main titles because he has no idea what it means. Late in the session, he mentions how Hoffman initially had difficulty "staying in the scene," as he couldn't connect with the other actors and stay true to the character. They came up with the compromise of him saying "Yeah" all the time. For someone who sees Rain Man as being about the failure of communication, Levinson ironically leaves too much dead air and maintains a cool detachment from the material that might've benefited the film but makes for a sterile listening experience.
This is in direct contrast to screenwriter Barry Morrow, who based the story on his relationship with Bill Sackter, a cognitively-impaired man who had spent most of his life in an institution for the mentally ill. Morrow had already adapted Sackter's story for a TV movie called Bill that has gone unseen by me, but I know has a place of honour right next to Anjelica Huston's Riding the Bus with My Sister on the shelves of discerning kitsch connoisseurs. Raymond was originally written as cognitively impaired like Bill, but when Dustin Hoffman took the role he insisted that he be made autistic instead. This led to Martin Ritt leaving the project, but it seems to have helped dry out the material and the absurdist touch Levinson brought to his work-for-hire to have facilitated that process. Morrow's first draft, faithfully realized, sounds like it would be positively unbearable. Still, he has a lot of interesting things to say about the people who inspired Rain Man and I appreciated his deeply sincere attachment to the film.
The Ronald Bass yak-track goes into greater detail about the project's history through the four directors. Bass is never anything but complimentary and one gathers that he would've been thrilled to work under any of them. Nonetheless, he does recollect how Spielberg told him at the start of their first meeting that he was wrong and Dustin Hoffman was right (about Raymond being autistic), then asked him if he wanted to know why. Bass's track is useful in that he has a clear antipathy towards the Charlie character and points out various ways in which he sees him as a master manipulator.
MGM has replaced a vintage featurette from the 2004 DVD with two that come across like they were intended for that earlier release. "The Journey of Rain Man" (22 mins., SD) offers nothing that can't be found in the three commentaries, aside from an interview with composer Hans Zimmer, who points out that if you were to combine all the music cues for the film, the tune wouldn't come to completion. He intended his score to never really go anywhere. I enjoyed "Lifting the Fog: A Look at the Mysteries of Autism" (20 mins., SD), which interviews some of the people who inspired Hoffman's performance. Of particular interest is Peter Guthrie, an autistic savant with a Rain Man-like ability to store and recall concrete statistical information regarding sports, movies, and pop music. He compulsively says "Right?" much like Raymond uses "yeah," suggesting that Raymond's coldness and disinterest in human approval or connection isn't necessarily endemic to autism. Despite their impairments, the autistic people we meet in this documentary are extremely friendly and desperate to be liked. Not to imply that Rain Man is inauthentic in its portrayal of autism--Raymond's aloofness probably has as much to do with his decades of institutionalization and the fact that we're only seeing him in foreign environments and uncomfortable situations.
Closing out the platter is a raw-looking deleted scene (2 mins., SD) of Raymond eating food in a convenience store without paying for it. Charlie rushes in just as things are about to get real ugly. Perhaps this was cut because it shows Charlie becoming protective of Raymond a little too early in the film, though I'm guessing it's probably because there's no reasonable explanation for how Charlie knew to come into that store right then, and because the "No Walk" scene serves the same basic function in a somewhat more natural way. The danger of Raymond being hit by a car seems more immediate and plausible than the danger of him stealing food. Finally, there's Rain Man's theatrical trailer, which (rather brilliantly) turns strange immediately after introducing the film's basic premise in the hackiest "'80s movie trailer" manner possible (they use the scene where Dr. Brunner explains to Charlie, "Raymond is your brother"). Originally published: October 5, 2011.