Tuesday 1 January 2013

Movie Review: Rain Man (1988)

A road trip to discover the densely hidden values of family, Rain Man is an effervescent journey benefiting from a career defining Dustin Hoffman performance and a surprisingly engaging Tom Cruise.

Entrepreneur Charlie Babbitt (Cruise) is a fast-talking exotic car importer based in Los Angeles. With his business in considerable financial trouble, Charlie receives word that his rich father has died in Ohio. Despite having run away from home at an early age and having no relationship with his stern dad, Charlie travels to Cincinnati with girlfriend Susanna (Valeria Golino) in tow. He is shocked to discover that most of his father's wealth has been placed in the trust of a mental institution, where unbeknown to Charlie, his brother Raymond (Hoffman) has been living for most of Charlie's life.

Raymond is an autistic savant, limited in most social functions but possessing some outstanding memory, observational and computational skills, although he is unable to deploy his talents to any meaningful purpose. Charlie takes unauthorized custody of Raymond, hoping to negotiate Raymond's return to the mental institution for what he perceives to be a rightful share of the inheritance. But when Raymond refuses to board any airplane, what was supposed to be a quick flight back to Los Angeles for the two brothers turns into a long cross-country road trip. On the drive, Charlie has to care for the peculiar needs of his brother, and starts to learn some new life lessons.

One of the quintessential road trip movies, Rain Man won multiple Academy Awards including Best Film. It also helped to reopen conversations about autism, provided Dustin Hoffman with the role of a lifetime, and allowed Tom Cruise to demonstrate talent beyond boyish charm. All this in a challenging human-centred package tackling with heart and humour topics as diverse as mental illness, the meaning of family, and the beginning of the end of the decade of greed.

Dustin Hoffman's performance as Raymond Babbitt deservedly earned him the Best Actor Academy Award. Hoffman embodies to perfection a man who has created a limited world suitable for his limited skills, with rigid habits of eating, writing and watching television governed to the minute to minimize any surprises. Hoffman's mannerisms, style and tone of speech, endless repetition of phrases and thoughts that either give him comfort or dominate his attention, gait, stare, and the angle of his head represent a remarkable display from an actor at the pinnacle of his profession.

Holding the centre of the film as the man who undergoes the transformational journey, Tom Cruise's performance as Charlie Babbitt is almost equally impressive. Charlie starts as a self-centred, money-obsessed man on the fast track to nowhere, and has to learn about family, caring for others, as well as lessons about childhood and his own "Rain Man". In one of his earliest meaningful roles transitioning to adulthood and serious acting, Cruise impressively convinces as the unintended victim of Raymond's peculiarities, innovating his way to a functional relationship with a brother that he never knew existed, and then getting closer than anyone to find the human hidden within Raymond's misfiring brain.

Director Barry Levinson, working from a script by Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass, steadily builds Rain Man to its emotional high, sprinkling moments of humour with the flashes of revelation on the back roads of America. Charlie's awakening culminates in Las Vegas where Cruise and Hoffman perform an extraordinary dance, Charlie discovering love of family, Raymond simply discovering a simple new pleasure in life.

Cinematographer John Seale gives Rain Man a slick and always picturesque look, whether at the most ramshackle of back road gas station phone booths or within the glitz of Vegas casinos. Cruise and Hoffman are often captured side by side, with expressions and stances that could not be more different, yet brothers finally brought together on a revelatory adventure. Charlie Babbitt may have instigated the journey, but as with all good road trips, he could never have predicted where he would be when it all came to an end.

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