Rain Man: The Unexpected Road Trip

For all of human history, the probably the most misunderstood aspect of being human has been mental illness. These range from the debilitating to the non-debilitating. Mental illness over the years has been lumped together with many different types of so-called diseases. Mental illness, though, is much more broad and complex than just saying, “that person is weird,” or “that person isn’t quite right in the head.”
Mental illness needs much more study. The human brain is by far the most complex thing that we have in our bodies. It sends us to the moon (both literally and figuratively), but also helps us add, subtract, learn, and even read some dummy’s blog on Oscar-winning movies.
Over time, too, some mental illnesses have been given names or even expanded. One of these is autism. Autism has many different levels and levels of severity. But, I am not, for even one second, going to sit here and tell you that I’m an expert on autism. I’m not. Something like this requires much more research that I can’t even give. So, I’m instead going to state the facts of what I see about autism in this post.
This week’s film is Rain Man directed by Barry Levinson. The 1988 film, which was the highest-grossing of the year, stars a young Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in its lead roles.

Hoffman plays Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant who, has hitherto been unknown by Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt, Raymond’s younger brother.

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I’ve talked a lot recently about the different historical perspective and spins that I can place on movies. Rain Man, however, is not that way. Levinson’s movie is simply a great and nuanced film that just tells a good story. Filled with fully fleshed out characters, particularly Charlie Babbitt, the film captures just a slice of the everyday struggles of living with and caring for someone with severe autism, but also hits all the right emotional notes, “turns” at the perfect time, and leave us with a sense of overall hope and restores our faith in humanity at large.
Now, for the rest of the movie.

Plot
Charlie Babbitt is a wheeling and dealing exotic car trader in Los Angeles. His only motivation is money, and making a lot of it. When Charlie gets a phone call that his wealthy, but estranged, father passes away, he must return home to Ohio to attend the funeral. When his father’s will is being read to Charlie, he’s furious after having only been left with a classic car and some exotic roses. Charlie learns that the cash and all the holdings of his father’s estate (some $3 million) have been placed in a trust for his previously unknown brother Raymond.
When Charlie visits the institution where Raymond currently lives, he learns that not only is Raymond his brother, but that Ray is an autistic savant, and an very high-functioning one at that.

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In order to win custody over Raymond, and thus the funds to his father’s estate, Charlie kidnaps Raymond and is determined to bring him to Los Angeles and win a court battle. Charlie, to his credit, doesn’t want all the money, just his half.
Raymond, who benefits mightily from routine, has his whole life turned upside down when Charlie takes him. This is particularly true when Charlie tries to make Raymond fly to Los Angeles. Raymond refuses, instead listing off all the recent airline crashes from the different airlines, stating that flying is dangerous. Raymond has an emotional breakdown when Charlie tries to force him onto a plane, realizing that Raymond doesn’t have the ability to cope with emotions like most people. Raymond, however, is very good with facts and figures, with the ability to count large numbers of objects at once or instantly multiply large numerals in his head. It’s clear that Raymond is something special.

Charlie, however, is forced to drive the two of them across the county in his dad’s old car. This only further destabilizes Raymond at first, but he gets used to his new routine. From there, the film evolves into a road trip buddy movie of sorts. We know of these films, but generally from a silly side of the “road trip” genre. This is particularly true of movies like Dumb and Dumber.
However, as the road trip goes on, Charlie continues to use Raymond to advance his own interests, particularly for the sake of money. He even takes him to Las Vegas and uses Raymond to count cards to win at the blackjack table. Over time, though, Charlie becomes attached to his older brother and now wants to keep Raymond because he wants to be around him. The two have formed an unlikely friendship in the days following the initial meeting. 1.

Writing
Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass wrote the screenplay to Rain Man. For their effort, the two of them won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, one of four Oscars won by this film in 1988.
When I first saw the concept for the film, I figured that the story was based off a book. That seems to be the normal for Oscar-winning movies. However, this is not the case here. But the genesis of the script is rooted in fact. Raymond Babbitt is based on the real life savant Kim Peek, who Morrow met. The encounter encouraged him to write the film.

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From a technical side, the script is terrific, particularly when it comes to dialogue. Charlie Babbitt is the perfect jerk through his words, and Raymond’s lines are succinct, to the point, and always circular. Raymond’s mind keeps coming back to detail after detail throughout the film, like the his statement that he’s an excellent driver. 1.

Set Design
Set in the modern day (now set in 1988) the film’s set is simple in that it just takes advantage of the modern day environment to immerse us in it’s physical world. In truth, the film is so 1980s that it hurts. Everything from Tom Cruise’s hair, to the liberal use of the Sony Watchman television set points to the 1980s experience.

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The set, though is varied. Shot mostly on location, the set covers everything from mental health institutions, to skivvy hotel rooms and, of course, the open road. All this helps set the tone for what the world is to it’s audience. Even though the film is set in 1988, it could just as easily be set in 1888 or 2088. The story is that versatile. The movie was nominated for Best Art Direction. 1.

Sound
If the set is certainly all about the 1980s, the sound just seals the deal, but it’s not like we had any doubt. The movie goes with a mix of contemporary music. This helps to add a tone of happiness and uplifts an otherwise serious film.
For the intrumentals, Hans Zimmer, who earned a Best Original Score nomination, provides the general score for the film. The score is full of electronic synthesizers. Again, this film is all about the 1980s.

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Going deeper than this and the sound design of Rain Man is truly wonderful. Raymond focuses on sounds, particularly on repeating sounds, like a car engine or the radio DJ. So as great as the first two elements of sound in this film are, the underlying sound design of the minutia in the film is what makes it stand apart. Late in the movie, Charlie’s smoke alarm goes off, and as loud and attention-getting as that event is for us, it’s even worse for Raymond. The sounds of everyday life, sure, but Rain Man tends to accentuate them. 1.

Cinematography
The way Rain Man is shot is a very complicated and multi-layered approach that it’s not immediately evident at first.
First of all, director of photography John Seale, who was nominated for the Oscar for cinematography, utilizes a number of close-ups throughout the film.
The closeup shot is utilized particularly during Charlie’s introspection into his treatment of his brother, but also is employed when the two are together, too. The close up is used, too, when Raymond has his emotional outbursts, of which there are many. This signals to us that the turn that Raymond’s life has take has upset it. But it’s one thing to just see his outbursts from afar, but also another to see them up close. Dustin Hoffman’s performance is visceral and strikingly real, a true master of method acting.

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But more than that, the cinematography helps us to get in the heads of both Charlie and Raymond. Most of us can sympathize with Charlie easily enough, sure, but we may have a hard time with Raymond. Seale does a good job of this by using his camera to focus on very minute details, from girders on bridges, to the lights on the Las Vegas Strip. Again, Raymond’s life is about the details of all things and the cinematography does a terrific job giving an just a small insight into Raymond’s life. 1.

Acting
I generally try to refrain from swearing too much on my blog, but I feel that I can’t with this movie. When it comes to Tom Cruise’s performance as Charlie Babbitt, Cruise truly becomes an a****le, and it’s so convincing that Laci, my faithful movie-watching partner, couldn’t even stand him and wasn’t interested in seeing the film.
It’s true, though. Charlie Babbitt is a jerk and I can’t overstate that fact. But he has his motivations. He’s not a jerk just for being a jerk. First of all, Charlie is greedy. You might say that he’s a personification of the excess of the 1980s in America. He deals in expensive cars, making his living off of people who by and large are greedy themselves. Money is the only thing that seems to spew from his lips throughout the first half of the film, and greenbacks force him to kidnap his brother in order to get his share of his father’s estate.
Charlie also has his strained relationship with his father to partially thank for his string of horrible behaviors in his young life. Cast aside from his dad and without the love of a mother (she died when Charlie was an infant), Charlie is a person who is starved. He’s starved for parental affection and emotional stability that he almost doesn’t know how to adjust to life without those grounding elements. He has a lot of growing up to do to be sure, but he’s not without his reasons, conscious or unconscious, for being the way he is.

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The second half of the film, particularly the last third, Charlie starts to turn around in our hearts. When he learns that Raymond was his “imaginary” childhood friend, Charlie’s outlook on life becomes much different. And by spending time with his long-lost brother, he gains respect for his brother and his abilities. But this also leads to a familial love in his life, one that he has been without since the divide between he and his father ruptured his life and sent him away.
Tom Cruise is truly a talented dramatic actor and that talent is on full display in this movie. Charlie must learn to become a brother to Raymond, but also a caretaker.
Opposite of Cruise is Dustin Hoffman, an esteemed Hollywood veteran. Interestingly enough, Hoffman, who plays Raymond Babbitt, has to bring life to a character who, heartbreakingly, can’t change or look at life in a new light like Charlie can and must. Raymond is who Raymond is and nothing can change that in Raymond’s life.
But Hoffman won the Best Actor for this role, primarily because his style of method acting helped to really sell this character. Raymond delivers most of his lines with the same deadpan delivery from the start of the film until the end. But he also has a number of physical traits that set him apart. Raymond will hit himself during emotional outbursts. Or, he’ll bounce back and forth on his feet and walk aimlessly, with his head cocked to one side when he is nervous. He is truly amazing at playing this part. I forgot that Hoffman has such a wide-ranging acting repertoire while watching this movie. It was only later that I remembered that he’s played everything from Ted Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer to Bernie Focker in Meet the Fockers.

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But, like I’ve stated before, Raymond Babbitt isn’t an invalid. He’s got tremendous mental abilities that are far more advanced than most of us. Hoffman had to keep this in mind too. To Raymond, this journey into the world is a far scarier, but also more interesting place. It’s a world full of seemingly infinite mathematical possibilities to observe and absorb. Everything from the precise nature of engineering and architecture to the ways that clothes fall in the dryer is just another pattern to be found by Raymond. 1.

Directing
Taking the reins on the direction of Rain Man was Barry Levinson. The American-born director won his only Best Director for this piece. The strong direction, in addition to everything I’ve mentioned above, helps to set this film apart from others I’ve watched recently.
First, Levison’s movie obviously turns a light to mental illness and perceptions of that illness. It’s true that in 1988, Rain Man helped to raise awareness and dispel myths about autism. But, to be fair, it’s also not a complete representation, some people believed that all people who have autism are savants, which is clearly not the case. Mental illness is a very difficult subject to try to tackle on the screen and Levinson should be applauded for giving it a try. But again, autism, and mental illness at large is a very complicated web.
From a thematic standpoint, Levison shines. The Babbitts are a family torn apart by bitterness, regret, money, and egos. Charlie must learn to identify himself, and his greater role in his broken family, which includes caring for his brother. And even though the two are very different on the surface, a deeper inspection of the Babbitt brothers reveals that they are more similar than they are different.

Raymond, for all his ability to calculate numbers or spot patterns, and it’s certainly impressive, fails to understand deeper meanings. I might even say that he can come up with the numbers, but fails to understand what they actually mean. He can’t understand deeper concepts like money, nor is he adept at handling emotions or changes to routine. He has a terrific understanding of the superficial, but little understanding of most things below the surface. It seems like his brain can recognize love and relationships, but it fails to effectively communicate that to the rest of his body.
Charlie, too, greatly understands the superficial throughout the movie. He understands money and all that entails (the power, the perceived happiness, the stability) but lacks any empathy or understanding of deeper human emotions and experiences, particularly brotherhood and love. Charlie though is the film’s key character and the moral of the story pivots with him as he changes on this road trip.

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At the heart of Rain Man is the discovery of self, and the discovery of love. Raymond is at first just a person to Charlie, and a means to secure his half of his father’s estate. However, he is the only one who is able to change throughout the film. Love finds its way into his heart, into his soul, really, and plants itself there. We get the pleasure of watching it grow within him. The point of all this is to say that love conquers all. That’s Levinson’s big idea, his thesis. This is a well-worn narrative, but one that can take many forms. The background of a cross-country trip provides the vehicle for this transformation and foundation of love. Raymond won’t let Charlie raise the roof on the car as they travel across the country, preferring to ride with it down. This is a fitting metaphor for Charlie’s experience being opened to the sky. Love has no limits, and neither does the sky when you really look at it. It’s never-ending and shrouds us all. 1.

Bonus Points
I’m giving an extra point to each Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman as well as director Barry Levinson.
Final Score: 10/10

Oscar Facts
Rain Man won the 61st Academy Award for Best Picture on March 29, 1989 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. It beat out The Accidental Tourist, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning, and Working Girl for Best Picture. The award was presented by Cher and accepted by producer Mark Johnson. In total, Rain Man was nominated for eight awards and won four, the most of the ceremony.

Other notable winners that night included Jodie Foster winning Best Actress for The Accused, Kevin Kline winning Best Supporting Actor for A Fish Called Wanda, and Geena Davis won Best Supporting Actress for The Accidental Tourist. The ceremony was the last public appearance of Lucille Ball, who died a month after the ceremony.

Final Thoughts
Next week, I’ll review Cavalcade. After that, it’s Mutiny on the Bounty, Shakespeare in Love, All About Eve, Marty, Chicago, and Going My Way.

5 Comments

  1. I love how in depth your review is!
    I really enjoyed this film when I watched it, but I haven’t seen it in such a long time. I also loved that you added a bonus section and some facts! 🙂

    Thanks so much for sharing!
    Fran x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was quite surprised when I watched it. I didn’t think Tom Cruise could change enough to make me like him but he did and it was a great journey. Thank you for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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