RAIN MAN (1988)


I had forgotten how much I adore this movie. It’s by far my favorite we’ve watched so far. Dustin Hoffman plays Raymond, the autistic savant brother that cocky, wheeler-dealer Charlie (Tom Cruise) never knew he had. Through the course of the movie, the two form a seemingly impossible bond on a road trip. The film begins when Charlie learns his father has passed away. This interrupts his life in Los Angeles, where he dates a beautiful Italian woman, deals luxury cars, and shoots off his mouth. He travels back to his hometown of Cincinnati for the funeral and the reading of his father’s will. The two were estranged, and Charlie is only given the classic car that ultimately led to their undoing – he borrowed it as a teen expressly against the will of his father.  He becomes determined to find out who is getting access to his father’s millions, and the search leads him to an institution and a brother he never knew – Raymond. He decides to take Raymond with him back to Los Angeles – in the hopes of leveraging him to get some of his father’s estate. He soon realizes that Raymond will challenge him in ways he never imagined, and will help him to recover parts of himself lost long ago.

I’d seen this before, but only as a youngster. This time around I caught a lot more of the subtlety, particularly in the interactions between Charlie and Raymond. Charlie is the true 80’s Guy, high strung and materialistic. Remember those tacky “he who dies with the most toys” bumper stickers? I didn’t see one on Charlie’s car, but probably just because he was concerned about it’s resale value. At the point he meets his brother, he is juggling the details of a high stakes deal that will make or break his business. Raymond is his foil in seemingly every way. Unable to understand or engage the world outside his own mind, his life is built on routine and repetition, resting on his remarkable abilities of memory and mathematical calculation. He can sit at a casino table and win hand after hand of blackjack by keeping track of the cards in his head without ever comprehending that he is playing for money. He recites Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s On First” routine verbatim with no realization that it was intended to be funny. He watches the same television shows as a daily ritual and knows exactly what to expect on his table at any given meal.

Susanna, Charlie’s girlfriend, plays an important role in the film by critiquing Charlie’s initial interactions and motivations with Raymond. However, it’s also extremely important to the development of the relationship between the two brothers that she leaves them for a time. In this period, Charlie finally learns that the magical childhood friend he remembers vaguely – “Rain Man” – was actually Raymond. The two connect in several touching scenes, and Charlie gets insight along the way about the gifts that his brother possesses in addition to his deficits. We’ve touched on the counting that Raymond is able to do – interestingly, though, this film is known for promulgating the myth that counting cards is illegal. It actually is not. There are crucial moments in which Charlie’s emotional deficits loom as large as Raymond’s – and underscore the reality that their burgeoning relationship is symbiotic, that in the absence of their father they both desperately need one another. The unerringly human portrayal of Raymond had to have helped cultural and societal treatment of people with disabilities. I also saw this film as a younger person, and I remember it awakening an understanding in me of both autism and disability in general. Films like this are absolutely critical for public consciousness.

That’s one of the things that flew by me when I watched as a kid; the irony that these two brothers, so unalike in many ways, are both so emotionally fettered in their own ways. Charlie begins the film unable to muster an emotional response to his father’s death or participate in a conversation with Susanna. She leaves the action, disgusted with her boyfriend. When she rejoins him later, she finds a new Charlie that has softened after connecting with Raymond during their trip. I like that this film uses a character who cannot connect to others and who relies on absolute sameness to tell a story about a man changing and learning empathy.

Seeing this movie was the first time I can remember hearing the term “autism” used, and I have to imagine it contributed to increased understanding of the condition. In fact, there is a scene in the film where the nurse at a primary care physician’s office doesn’t know what the word “autistic” means; a scene that would be implausible today.

One scene touched me deeply. Eventually, we realize a shift has taken place in Charlie. Through his travel with Raymond, his motivations change. Raymond is no longer simply leverage for his father’s estate. Charlie realizes that his life would be better with his brother in it. The two go to a meeting with a doctor meant to assess the situation and Raymond’s caretaker from the institution who is fighting to bring him back. After a litany of questions, which cause Raymond unbearable agitation, Charlie realizes that his brother truly cannot make a choice about his future. The professionals leave the two alone, and Charlie turns to Raymond and says, “I am happy to have you for my big brother.” Wordlessly, Raymond leans his head forward, touching it to Charlie’s shoulder. For a man so distraught by human touch, this is enormous. It moved me to my core.

Additionally, earlier scenes showed Charlie teaching his brother to dance and Susanna kissing him in the elevator in ways that were very human and touching. Hollywood doesn’t excel at creating poignant, heartfelt moments without overdoing it – in this film, the balance was perfectly struck.

Agreed, the scene at the final meeting where Raymond touches his head to Charlie’s- that’s the subtlety I missed when I saw it way back.

I always look at the late 1980’s as a bleak time for pop culture. Perhaps merely a result of having lived through it as an 11 year old, but the period still strikes me as a kind of cultural trough. Somewhere between the Second British Invasion of MTV’s golden age and the coming grunge and hip-hop revolutions, music was dominated by bland jingles like “Kokomo.” And the movies during the early George H.W. Bush era? There was Crocodile Dundee II, Poltergeist III, Howling IV: The Original Nightmare, Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach… You get the idea. Again, this may very well be one man’s memories of his jams-wearing adolescence, but if I ever do get that time machine, this time probably won’t be the first I visit. Nonetheless, there obviously are some cinematic standouts, Rain Man being one of them. It may not have defined an era the way Star Wars or Pulp Fiction did, but it is a very good dramatic film, and I’m glad to have revisited it.

Next Film: ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)


One Response to “RAIN MAN (1988)”

  1. Recently watched this movie again also (I’m watching the Tom Cruise filmography.) Loved it just as much as I did when it first came out.

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