A Lifetime in Film 1988 #2: Rain Man

Review:

Well I’ve already reviewed Rain Man as part of my Tom Cruise Tribute blog series, but I thought I’d share a few additional thoughts here. It’s a great film. In fact I think it’s one of those movies that simply gets better every time I see it. The performances, especially the one by Cruise, only benefit from repeat viewings as the characters become more and more believable. Visually the film looks better than it ought to, but then again it is in part a road movie, and the widescreen vistas are an expectation of the genre. 

This time around the greed and overall ugliness of Charlie Babbit (Cruise) really hit home. And by the end he doesn’t come all the way around. There is some redemption, of course, but I give director Barry Levinson and the writers all the credit in the world for keeping it subtle. In a lesser movie, Charlie’s change of heart would have been spoon fed to the audience, but here as the end credits roll, I still felt uneasy about the way he used his autistic brother Ray (Dustin Hoffman) to get an inheritance he is not entitled to. At one point Charlie actually offers to exchange Ray for $1.5 million! It’s the type of scene that’s very difficult to recover from and Levinson knows this. I’m not sure Charlie is supposed to ever win us back fully by the end – he just needs to make a single right decision. 

The characters actually show growth here – these are not artificial arcs. In the third act we believe Ray’s condition is yes, going to go on for the rest of his life, but also that his experience with Charlie has left a mark on him he will always remember. Ray’s condition is unbearably sad in my view, but the film has been embraced by some in the autistic community. Though they critique (and forgive) the relative inaccuracy of the portrayal of the disease, they embrace that the film doesn’t show a “miraculous healing” moment for Ray, instead opting for a very subtle change in the character that gives a very small ray of hope to the audience. 

Overall the film is still as powerful as it was at the time of release. The performances, the directing, the screenplay, the pace (ok, here it could use a bit of work, but this is Barry Levinson after all) all come together to give a very satisfying movie viewing experience. B+

Legacy:

It won Best Picture at the Oscars and I have no problem with that. In fact it’s a bit surprising to see a film that doesn’t have much of a message win it all at the end. Rain Man almost strives to not be mainstream, with only the fun sequence in Las Vegas standing out as a purely mainstream construct. 

The film has its modern day detractors, especially people who have taken issue with Hoffman acting like an autistic man, while not being autistic. While I believe it’s a conversation worth having, there have been some wonderful, well-researched papers like this one by the Wisconsin Medical Society that to me, serve to settle the argument about the performance’s obvious shortcomings and inaccuracies. 

Next I will be reviewing the Bruce Willis actioner Die Hard which will wrap up 1988! See you then.

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