Monday, May 2, 2011

A Cross-country Road Trip, Why Rain Man Is An Almost Perfect Film!

The Good: Acting, Character development, Direction, Plot, Mood
The Bad: Light on DVD bonus features, Moments of soundtrack being overbearing
The Basics: An awkward dramedy about a sleazy man whose redemption might be found in his autistic older brother, Rain Man improves with each viewing!

Sometimes, it is difficult to separate a movie with a difficult presentation from the subject matter when one considers if it is a great work or not. No one wants to be the person who admits that a holocaust movie is almost universally depressing or outright boring, but sometimes that is the case. Similarly, when a movie is difficult because the characters are unlikable or the subject is one that is difficult to watch on screen, it sometimes takes a more objective analysis to determine whether or not the film is truly great or not. In the case of Rain Man, I began to realize that the film was so effective because of how very much I loathed Tom Cruise's character, Charlie Babbitt. In my experience, the only role that was so well-performed by Cruise (and was an equally unlikable character) was his role in Magnolia (reviewed here!). But given how quickly I returned to watch Rain Man after watching it again for the first time in years last night (I rewatched the movie again this afternoon), I realized that Rain Man is a great film and that even when it was difficult, I enjoyed it. In fact, it may well be a perfect film (or exceptionally close).

Rain Man is a difficult film to watch for several reasons, not the least of which is that Charlie Babbitt is a jerk and the way he treats his brother is horrible to watch. It is a difficult movie to watch because of Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Raymond Babbitt. Raymond is an autistic savant and watching him is often unpleasant and alienating; we become instantly aware of how low-functioning he is and watching how Charlie treats him makes us squirm. Unlike the title character of Adam, Raymond is unable to live in the outside world (without being institutionalized) and watching Rain Man is often as uncomfortable as watching . . . well, a good movie on the holocaust.

Charlie Babbitt is a car dealer of rare imports and when an EPA crackdown on emissions makes some new Lamborghinis impossible to sell, Charlie's financial problems multiply. As he escapes for a weekend with his girlfriend, Susanna, he is informed that his estranged father has died and they fly to Cincinnati instead. There, he inherits a car (which began the estrangement between him and his father) and rosebushes. The rest of his father's estate of three million dollars is tied up in a trust which Charlie quickly finds out belongs to someone at Walbrook. Making a trip to the Walbrook facility, Charlie learns that he has an older brother, Raymond. Thinking that he might be able to get half the estate to bail himself out of his problems, Charlie takes Raymond out of Walbrook.

Almost instantly, though, Charlie learns that caring for the routine-entrapped Raymond is more than he bargained for. Unable to fly out of Cincinnati because of Raymond's violent aversion to airplane travel, the pair embarks on a Cross-country trip in the car. Throughout, Charlie barely puts up with Raymond's repeating the "Who's On First?" monologue, Raymond's insistence on watching specific television programs at certain times and eating meals particular to each day and time (from Walbrook). But as the journey goes on and Charlie's business is repossessed, he makes a connection with Raymond that causes him to reprioritize his life.

Largely Rain Man works because of the script by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow. Bass and Morrow are very funny with verbal comedy and while it might be initially annoying, the entire film is often like the banter of "Who's On First?" as Charlie tries to control Raymond and keep him from hurting himself. The movie relies on a strong sense of repetition and in that the viewer may easily find themselves empathizing with Charlie. But the longer one listens to Raymond's monologues on K-Mart, The People's Court, or driving the car, the more one feels trapped. This works perfectly both for the viewer (and the point of the film) and the character development of Charlie.

Faced with a new brother and old debts, Charlie begins to actually find his humanity and while his greed is sated - through using his brother for a trip to Las Vegas - he actually begins to grow. Charlie's growth is an argument for Humanism over capitalism and the inherent worth of life versus the unfulfilling nature of capitalist exploitation. Charlie is largely a jerk, but the argument can be made that it is because he is backed into a corner by the business he runs. When he actually stops worrying about the money, he gives a truly heartfelt monologue. The change in Charlie is extraordinary and satisfying for viewers to watch.

Rain Man, though, is extraordinary for its realism. Raymond's trauma is revealed, but even with its revelation, there is no catharsis. While Charlie and the audience can piece together how Raymond ended up severely autistic, knowing does not change his condition. He is trapped as an adult with a mind that is fractured between genius brilliance (with numbers and trivia) and childlike emotional protectionism and outbursts.

What sells the almost-lack of plot (this becomes a road trip pretty quickly as Charlie drives Raymond across the country having to stay at motels each night . . . providing it is not raining) are the characters and the acting. Charlie alienates Susanna early on and this forces him to relate to Raymond on his own and the process becomes riveting to watch because Charlie feels frustrated with Raymond's lack of growth and change much the way his repetitive lines grate on the viewer. Only with truly wonderful actors is that possible.

Yes, that was an implicit statement that Tom Cruise is a great actor because in Rain Man he manages the role perfectly. Cruise has the easier task, which is to essentially play the role of the audience, short and direct with Raymond, wanting a linear sensibility (and narrative). When Charlie runs into an obstacle, he becomes rightously indignant and soon after, the audience feels frustrated with the film because we want the obstacle Charlie sees to be dealt with, but Raymond is entirely distracting. Cruise emotes the frustration of the work-a-day audience and his ability to play short-tempered works wonderfully. Of course, the audience is likely to find their humanity well in advance of Charlie, but Cruise makes the transition realistic.

Dustin Hoffman carries Rain Man almost entirely on the strength of his acting. Hoffman never slips with his facial expression or stiff body language in the way he portrays Raymond and he is exceptional in his delivery of the monotonous lines of the character. Indeed, Hoffman's true mastery comes in watching his eyes. As Raymond, he never hints at his intelligence or awareness and the ability to do that is truly extraordinary. Raymond is easy to empathize with because of how Hoffman represses his own emotions and expresses only Raymond's in the difficult way that he must. It is truly amazing to watch.

On DVD, Rain Man includes a single deleted scene (which answers how Raymond got the food before he ended up in the middle of an intersection) and the original theatrical trailer for the film. As well there is the original featurette for television and that is essentially an extended advertisement with interviews with the main cast. These are not extraordinary DVD bonus features for a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, but they are not bad.

Fortunately, the source material is good enough to encourage the buy. Rain Man is a classic that works because the characters are so vivid and the journey is a worthwhile one, whenever we need to be reminded of how to treat our brothers.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, available here! Please check it out!]

For other films featuring mental illness as a theme or with Tom Cruise as a star, please check out:
Shutter Island
Knight And Day


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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