TC Tribute #11: Rain Man (1989)

A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

Rating: *** (out of ****)

**Some spoilers herein.**

Is there a more confounding filmmaking career than that of Barry Levinson? He’s long been thought of as a director of comedies, and yet, he didn’t direct a ‘true’ comedic effort until 1994’s Jimmy Hollywood (as if to prove that he hadn’t ‘sold out’ he released the disturbing and perverse hard-R sexual thriller Disclosure in the same year). A comedy director Levinson is not and never will be, instead here are some other, more accurate ways to describe him: wildly uneven in the quality of scripts he picks to direct, outspoken about the recent disintegration of the Hollywood film industry, and an Academy Award darling (his movies, especially early in his career seemed to always get nominated for an Oscar or two, predominantly in the acting categories). Of course, he is also a talent, and one of the rare filmmakers working today that’s still trying to recapture that old 1930s to 1950s Hollywood magic in every movie he makes. Rain Man is a perfect example of this.

And that is why its success, both critical and at the box office is so surprising. Rain Man is a small unconventional film with plenty of quirks that get in the way of the inspirational message it’s aiming for. But Levinson is no Zemeckis and this is no Forrest Gump. His unsentimental approach is exemplified by Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt – a slick and greedy man who does business through empty promises and whose only goals are material in nature. If ever there was a character set up for redemption this one’s it. Charlie’s brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman in an award-winning role) suffers from a type of autism that grants him photographic memory but prevents him from being able to form successful relationships with other people, unless those other people have the patience and understanding of a Buddhist. Oh and also he has been bestowed with his father’s fortune which is worth millions of dollars. This is a problem for Charlie since he is only left with his dad’s old car and a garden of rosebushes. So he sets out on a journey to get his hands on the money, one that inevitably puts him on an emotional collision course with his brother’s condition and some long-forgotten brotherly love.

The interactions between Charlie and Raymond form the centerpiece of the film, as they are forced to go on a cross-country road trip after Raymond freaks-out at an airport in a now infamous scene which has the totally baseless reputation of being funny – it is in fact one of the most unfunny sequences of the whole movie. Levinson’s handling of their relationship is unsurprisingly actor-dependent as the interactions between Hoffman and Cruise come off as naturalistic and unrehearsed. It’s a consistently difficult relationship to swallow as is the whole film – one of the most difficult watches of Tom Cruise’s career. Levinson’s style insists that the rewards for watching this are minimal and that the characters don’t find an easy way to repair their relationship, or Charlie’s behavior. There is a sequence that takes place in Las Vegas that should represent a pleasant bonding episode until Charlie (and the audience) is suddenly reminded that he is using his brother for purely financial gain by his estranged girlfriend Susanna (Valeria Golino). 

By this point Charlie should have redeemed himself in the eyes of the audience, but with Levinson it’s never that easy. It is in fact fair to say that Charlie never quite redeems his behavior. Yes, by the end he realizes that family is more important than an inheritance or quick-and-dirty business deals, but that’s all there is – a realization. There isn’t a clear act of redemption, instead Levinson is comfortable with his movie simply saying “Look he’s wrong!” This is what in the end, keeps us at a distance and never allows us to connect with the characters’ plights.

Fortunately, Levinson’s cruel and distancing naturalism is counter-balanced by the rest of the film crew. John Seale’s cinematography is so beautiful it hurts and Hans Zimmer’s score alleviates the quirks and goes for the heart strings. Long-time Levinson collaborator, editor Stu Linder does a great job of immersing us in the many settings the characters go through. If it makes the film longer than need be, it’s a small price to pay for the enjoyment of the long shots of the numerous landscapes and authentic pieces of Americana shown on the screen. The actors themselves do a great job, with Hoffman delivering a performance that is so good it’s hard to believe he was able to pull it off. Cruise is a good straight man, but maybe even better than that as he frequently tends to put the character’s negative tendencies at the forefront, making him a good complement to Hoffman’s innocent.

In the end, the amount of effort put into the movie is fairly sizable by everyone involved. Did it deserve as much praise and Oscar gold?  Probably not. It is a movie that’s difficult to enjoy and be entertained by. Still the things that work work quite well and it’s hard to find a better performance than that of Hoffman’s in his or Levinson’s entire repertoires. If anything, Rain Man should be looked at as yet another of the filmmaker’s curious efforts to supplant Hollywood’s tendencies and as that it’s a valiant effort.

One thought on “TC Tribute #11: Rain Man (1989)

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