Tuesday, October 9, 2012

It's Raining Man: "Rain Man" (1988)

In the last few years, this was one of the few Oscar winners for best picture that was not a ponderous three hour history lesson.

Charlie Babbit, a struggling and cocky luxury car dealer finds out his father dies, and goes to Ohio from L.A. to collect his expected inheritance. He finds out he has an older autistic brother named Raymond who has all the money put in trust for his care. Charlie takes Raymond on a drive back to L.A. to await a hearing on custody of Raymond, and the film is, in effect, their cross country journey.

I have seen this film many times before, as have others, and I would suggest a new way to view this: just watch Tom Cruise's under-appreciated performance. He is very confident and sure of himself, and holds his own against Hoffman. His character does change slightly throughout the film, but Cruise never allows Charlie to do a 180 into sainthood. Even at the climactic hearing, he speaks shortly to Raymond, and their final scene after the hearing, where Raymond leans his head on Charlie's, is wonderful.

Hoffman deserved the Oscar for best actor. Sure, everyone did their own Raymond impressions (until Tom Hanks' Forrest Gump came along; why do some people think mental retardation is funny?), but Hoffman has not been this good very often since ("Hero", anyone?).

The screenplay is wonderful, despite a troubled history and multiple endings. The one scene I had a problem with is when Charlie figures out who Raymond was to him as a child, and Levinson basically has Cruise talk to himself as a way to let those in the audience know. I cannot stand that. We can figure it out without Cruise mumbling "they sent you away because they thought you hurt me." This is just quibbling, however, considering other positives here. Levinson uses overlapping dialogue to a wonderful extent, with Cruise always talking and trying to find a way out of a jam. His scene where he keeps repeating his inheritance, the rose bushes, to his father's lawyer, while the lawyer tries to talk, is funny and a foreshadowing to Hoffman's Raymond. Maybe Raymond does not say some of the things he says because he is autistic, but because he is a Babbit. When Robert Altman uses overlapping dialogue, it seems forced, boring, and something you must endure until Sally Kellerman or some other leading lady agrees to take her clothes off. Here, it is very natural. Valeria Golina is also good as Charlie's exasperated Italian girlfriend.

Hans Zimmer provides an incredible score that is not used often enough. The pick of songs, from Bananarama's remake of "Nathan Jones," to Etta James' "At Last" seemed to be collected to make the movie work, not because someone wanted a hit soundtrack a la "Footloose" or "Beverly Hills Cop."

"Rain Man" is a great film, and one that deserves a fresh look today. (* * * * *) out of five stars.