Barry Levinson’s Rain Man was so seminal a film that its title character’s nickname and dialogue have entered the vernacular — we’ve all said “Kmart sucks” and “I’m an excellent driver” once or twice, right? Beneath the film’s gentle odd-couple comedy and astonishingly affecting performance by Dustin Hoffman as the autistic savant Raymond Babbitt, however, is a sharp drama about emotionality, frustration, and the capacity we all have for surprising ourselves by changing.
Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is the classic 80s shark: cold, all business, seemingly without a care for anyone but himself. When his wealthy, estranged father dies and leaves him only an insulting token — a 1949 Buick Roadmaster that was the cause of their estrangement — Charlie discovers that the $3 million estate has been left in trust for a brother, Raymond, he never knew he had. Determined to get “his half” of the money, Charlie steals Ray from the institution that is his home in Cincinnati, planning to take him back to Charlie’s home in LA and fight for custody of Ray. Ray refuses to fly — “airline travel’s very dangerous” — so they hit the road in the Roadmaster.
The week-long trip is an exercise in frustration for Charlie. Ray is a mass of idiosyncratic routines and nervous habits — he won’t go out in the rain; he recites “Who’s on first?” when he’s upset — that incense Charlie. “Stop acting like an idiot,” Charlie tells Ray. But Charlie starts to feel a connection to Ray when he realizes that he’s the “Rain Man” of his vague childhood memory, reconnecting Charlie with a family he lost long before. Yet when Charlie tries to express this new closeness by hugging Ray, Ray starts screaming — he doesn’t like to be touched, and he’s incapable of understanding or sharing in his brother’s feeling. Nothing affects Ray emotionally, or at least not in the same way it does Charlie or any of the rest of us.
And the ironic thing is, it’s because of Raymond that Charlie learns to open up and connect with other human beings. Charlie’s relationship with Ray mirrors the relationship Charlie has with his patient girlfriend, Susanna (Valeria Golino). When Charlie continues to fail to really communicate with Ray, he yells at his brother: “You can’t tell me you’re not in there somewhere!”, echoing Susanna’s earlier complaint that she feels like she’s alone when she’s with Charlie. Charlie tries to reach out to Ray and gets nothing in return, just as Susanna failed with Charlie.
Ray’s isolation may not be by choice, but Charlie’s was, though he probably didn’t realize it. “You use people — you’re using Raymond” to get his inheritance, Susanna accuses Charlie. But by the end of the movie, Charlie seems a bit overwhelmed to discover that “it’s not about the money anymore.” Instead, Charlie wants to know, “Why didn’t anyone tell me I had a brother? It’d’ve been nice to know him for more than just the past six days.”
Raymond may be a hard character to identify with, but Charlie isn’t. The ability to be kind, patient, and accepting that the younger Babbitt learns could probably use some sharpening in all of us.
Oscars Best Picture 1988
unforgettable movie moment:
Charlie teaches Ray to dance in front of a huge window in a casino’s high-roller’s suite overlooking the Vegas strip. “I don’t know about you,” Charlie says, “but I’m starting to feel a little silly.”