Rain Man (1988)
Why can’t Tom Cruise always be this good?
Rain Man is about a self-centered, superficial yuppie who goes back home to cash out on his inheritance after finding out that his estranged father has suddenly passed away. Upon discovering that his father more or less shafted him in the will and gave his $3 million estate to an unnamed beneficiary, our guy tracks down the said anonymous recipient who ends up being the autistic older brother that his parents never told him about. So in an emotional moment of poor judgment, the younger brother decides to semi-kidnap his big bro, drives to L.A. for six days until someone pays him his half of the $3 million, and in the meanwhile gets to know the sibling he never had who couldn’t be any different from what he expected.
Being someone who watches an unhealthy amount of movies that range from The Godfather to Survive Style +5, there aren’t a whole lot of big names that have fallen through the cracks over the years. Still haven’t seen Black Hawk Down, still need to carve out those four hours to sit through Gone With the Wind, and until this past weekend, Rain Man was high up on that very same embarrassing list. No idea how it ended up there considering how many times I’d surfed past it on TBS over the years, but that Ted Turner and the rest of the world sure knew something I didn’t because this movie really is something else.
This is exactly I need to revisit Diner, The Natural and introduce myself to Tin Men because Barry Levinson really was great behind the camera way back when. Long before the days of Man of the Year, Envy and handful of other winners that I’m sure Levinson would like to pretend never happened, this guy was making and writing some seriously good movies that still hold up to this day thanks to memorable, believable characters and the vivid, familiar settings that surrounded them. But while none of the writing credit actually goes to him this time around (even though it sounds awfully close to something he would write), all those gorgeous, sprawling Midwest landscapes that highlight so much of this road trip to the retro finishes that make it look like the coolest parts of Happy Days got magically transported three decades into the future, those are all Barry and he makes this baby look gorgeous.
It’s simple, it’s sparse, and it’s perfect. It keeps your attention focused on the characters, it’s good old American eye candy at its best and it makes the trip that much more captivating outside of all the back-and-forths about The People’s Court, pancakes and toothpicks. I never knew the stretch between Cincinnati and L.A. had more to offer than corn as far as the eye can see, but it’s a far cry from the Manhattan skyline and I think that’s one of the many stunning things about it. So way to go, Barry. Sure do love those sunsets.
But as far as the writing credit is concerned, that right there goes to Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow who totally deserved the Oscars they nabbed for this. Then again, I really don’t know where the hell this script came from being that these guys don’t have a whole lot else on their resumes worth bragging about, but whatever, what matters is that it’s right up Levinson’s alley and that’s a fine place to be. It’s riddled with phenomenal dialogue from beginning to end, it’s incredibly heartfelt and honest in ways that never feel cheap or melodramatic, it’s a brilliant premise to work off of, but more than anything else, these guys created two absolutely exceptional characters to center a movie around. And as with any great script, it helps to have great performances there to deliver it all.
On the one hand is Dustin Hoffman as our autistic savant, Raymond Babbitt, and in completely unsurprising fashion, he’s out of sight. Why? Because he’s Dusting-fucking-Hoffman, that’s why. But even so, this is a serious achievement for the guy, for any actor really. It’s the voice, the nervous ticks, the little moments where his actions completely transcend the “idiot” label he gets pegged with, and the dozens of other things that ultimately makes Raymond seem just as “normal” as his brother despite the initial instinct to write him off as something less. I watched Hoffman do his thing and the one thing that kept coming to mind is, “This guy either doing one hell of a good impression or he is digging real deep right now. Or both.” It’s so impressive the way Hoffman presents Ray so that you don’t pity him, but rather he’s misunderstood in a way most people will never understand. Not an easy balance to strike but he does it flawlessly and he makes you want to learn more.
But that’s what you expect from Dustin Hoffman.
What I didn’t expect was Tom Cruise as Charlie Babbitt, the biggest hot shot asshole of the ’80s this side of Bud Fox. Now, I’ve never really been sold on Cruise even though he’s proved himself time and time again as a solid actor and I was expecting him to start playing second fiddle here as soon as Hoffman entered the picture. But strangely enough, between him and Hoffman, he totally ended up with the better character arc of the two. God, he’s so spot-on as the bratty, materialistic asshole for so much of the movie and to watch that pent-up angst slowly fade away with each new epiphany that Raymond’s presence brings about, it’s enough to make a grown man cry. After this, I really need to give Tom a break and accept that he’s no joke when he puts his mind to it. He really is great, and even if Hoffman won the Oscar in a year where Cruise didn’t even get nominated, the proof is very much in the pudding.
Folks, Levinson and the script really add so much to why this movie works so well, but watching these two go from strangers to brothers is simply wonderful. The bath water scene, Charlie teaching Ray how to dance in their Vegas suite (my personal favorite), Ray’s first “wet” kiss – there’s just so many great moments between the two from one scene to the next and it choked me up as much it had me laughing. If you have a brother, it’ll make you appreciate ’em that much more, and if you don’t, you might just wish you did.
I realize that I’ve now gone through every adjective in the book to describe everything that I effing loved about this movie, but it really did blow me away far more than I thought it would. It’s about family no matter what, forgiveness, and looking past the surface, and while I might have been outrageously late in discovering it, Rain Man is a stunner, it’s nothin’ fancy, and that’s one hell of a combination when it’s done right. Just so damn good on every front. Never gonna surf past this one again.