Rain Man – 1988
Director – Barry Levinson
Starring – Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, and Valeria Golino
What is more awful, the imitation of the famous character, or the famous character, himself? It’s not as easy a question as I was guessing that it would be. With such well-defined mannerisms, speech patterns that inspire imitation, and the constant repetition that drives it into the brain of the collective public, a film like this one can easily become parody. Before seeing this film, my only knowledge of it was of the imitation of Ray Babbit that just about everyone seems to know, regardless of having seen the film or not. I had grown rather sick of these imitations and had developed the opinion that I didn’t like Rain Man because of it. I felt that Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the aforementioned Babbit was hammy and over the top, and I wrote off Tom Cruise as having played himself…again. All before having seen one frame of film. I was wrong.
For something that could have easily delved into the realm of the predictable, layered with melodrama, and schlock that I feared so much, Rain Man keeps a remarkably level-headed assessment of Hoffman’s mentally challenged Ray and his hot-headed brother, Charlie played in a remarkably subtle way by Cruise. Immediately my impression of the film shot up as the characters turned out to be not only grounded in reality, but more importantly, utterly believable and even likable as well.
Driven mostly by his anger, and to a lesser degree by his fear, Charlie Babbitt,tries to fill the hole inside himself with things and with money. Constantly he is reminding himself of what the world owes him, and it is with this attitude that he greets the news of his estranged fathers death. Not willing to deal with how this makes him feel, or his own sense of loss, Charlie looks simply at what was left to him, and feels he is owed more. He is not a terrible or a bad person, he is just so filled with anger, it’s all he can feel anymore.
The majority of his father’s money, it turns out, has been left to a brother, that Charlie never knew he had. Ray Babbitt, the new-found brother, immediately becomes a target for Charlie’s anger, despite the fact that he’s unable to understand, let alone deal with either the anger or the blame. Charlie is left with the choice of leaving with nothing, or leaving with Ray, hoping to get a sort of paltry ransom from the executor of his father’s estate, and the rest of the film deals with the two brothers learning to find value in one another.
While the union isn’t ideal for either of them at first, the two brothers eventually get to know each other, and in time come to trust each other too. As I mentioned before, Tom Cruise, wasn’t yet the Tom Cruise we know today. The 1988 version could actually play more than one character, each one with subtlety and definition, too. Watching Babbitt stretch and grow, first straining against then breaking through the confines of his anger, was one of the most rewarding experiences thus far in this endeavor. Combined with the muted performance that Dustin Hoffman turns in, Rain Man showed itself to be the real deal.
While not my favorite of what I’ve seen during this little endeavor, Rain Man was surprisingly good. What could easily have fallen back into the gimmick of method acting or even a plain, stale buddy movie, really blossomed into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Well worth it.