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Imagine that you just learn that you have a brother you never knew about. You’ve lived all this time without knowing him and suddenly, just like that, there he is. This is what’s happening to Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise). But it’s much more. One day he is importing expensive sports cars, desperately trying to get sale on four Lamborghini’s he bought but can’t move because of EPA regulations, and the next, he’s told his father has died and nearly all of the family’s three million dollar estate is being directed to a mental institution. Seems he and his father hadn’t seen eye-to-eye, so he gets nothing. Well, not nothing. There’s the 1940 Buick Roadmaster convertible. And the prize winning roses. But for Charlie, this isn’t enough. So, with a little social engineering down at the hall of records, he sweet talks his way into learning the benefactor of the estate, and it turns out he has an institutionalized brother, an autistic savant named Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) who has great skills for memory retention but is bound by highly strict routines that, if broken, terrify him to the point of screaming panic.
Frustrated and angry with his father’s final act, he steals Raymond away in hopes of negotiating for what he believes is his deserved half of the inheritance. That’s reasonable. What’s not is what he does next. Piled into the Roadmaster, Charlie, Raymond, and Charlie’s girlfriend Susanna (Valeria Golino) take off and check into a hotel, basically kidnapping the older brother from the home. But Charlie has clearly bitten off more than he can chew, and we’ve already seen that Charlie can take some very big bites. Incapable of taking care of the increasingly very specific needs Raymond demands, Charlie comes across as cruel and insensitive, forcing Susanna to leave, disgusted with how Charlie treats his brother.
In a diner the next morning, Charlie learns that Raymond, in just one sitting, has memorized the local phonebook, or at least up to letter G. He also is able to calculate, with just a glance, exactly the number of toothpicks that have fallen from a box onto the floor. Two hundred forty six, because four are still in the carton. Very cool. But for Charlie, this is just a parlor trick of sorts as he is far too focused on the money, needing it in order to complete the deal with the Lamborghini’s, which fails as the buyers back out, leaving Charlie in massive debt. He contacts the mental institution and attempts to gain custody of his brother, but is told that he is not equipped to take care of Raymond. They beg him to bring Raymond back. It’s a no go, and Charlie decides to bring Raymond to L.A. but the severity of Raymond’s condition becomes all too apparent at an Airport. Knowing too much about airline crashes, Raymond panics at the idea, forcing Raymond to abandon air travel. It puts a huge damper on Charlie’s plan, but he’s got no other choice. Time for a road trip and some quality male-bonding. Yet not so fast. On the interstate, Raymond and Charlie come across a terrible accident where police and rescue are hard at work trying to save lives. Raymond becomes convinced that the highway is also not safe and with no other option, gets out and walks to the exit with an exasperated Charlie right behind in the car. But it only gets worse for Charlie. Raymond must be in a bed by 11:00, which means a hotel, and more time lost, and then the next day, since Raymond won’t go outside when it rains, Charlie can’t get back on the road again. The road trip is becoming an extended hotel stay.
These are just a few of the speed bumps Charlie faces, and as they make their way, slowly west, Charlie begins to develop a relationship with his brother, especially when he realizes that Raymond’s gift for numbers has some very particular advantages in counting cards, a trick that comes in handy at the Blackjack table in Las Vegas. Just like that, Charlie’s money troubles are over.
Directed by Barry Levinson, this multiple Academy Award winning film showcases some extraordinary performances from both leads and raised a lot a attention and interest in autism. Hoffman, one of his generations’s or any others, greatest method actors simply melts into the part, taking us on an astounding journey full of some very powerful emotional moments. Cruise is also effective as we witness his transformation from self-centered money-maker into a deeply connected young man, discovering not only much about the importance of brotherhood but also himself. Touching, funny, thought-provoking, and highly satisfying, Rain Man is quintessential movie entertainment.
Scene Setup: As the two brothers make their way across the country, with Charlie having to reroute and improvise as they go to keep his troubled brother not only happy but manageable, they end up in a Texas motel. By this point, Charlie has seen much in his brother, from his desperate need for consistency and hyper reaction if anything is altered, to his incredible ability in mathematics and memory retention. Charlie has evolved a bit too, though we know he has never been entirely a bad person. While initially furious over his father’s refusal to share the family wealth, we see that it is really about the choice to keep his brother from him that is causing the most pain. His distanced and cold personality is emerging as effect from his dismissive father, though even that becomes a burden he carries for his own behavior growing up. Now that he has Raymond, even while he is frustrated and outwardly abrasive, he concedes to every need Raymond has, being sure that he is taken care of, even as he is losing money on his car deal. At every turn, he sees to what his brother asks for, and while each of these scenes reveals a little something deeper about Raymond, they reveal more about Charlie. Now in Texas, almost by habit, but decidedly more from affection, Charlie assures Raymond that the motel room will be arranged the way he likes, with the bed by the door, with his apple juice and pens, and even his tart control toothpaste by the ready. Charle is learning about his brother and himself, but he is about to learn much, much more.
The Scene: Raymond is preparing for bed, his routines closely followed. Rocking methodically, he brushes his teeth in the small bathroom. Charlie comes in to talk with his brother, but when he says his name, Raymond smiles and says something that catches Charlie off guard. As a child, we learned earlier, Charlie had an imaginary friend, the Rain Man, who would sing to him when he was scared. Now, decades later in a Texas motel room, he hears the name again, coming from his autistic older brother. Rain Man. Raymond. Charlie discoveries that all those years ago, he had tried to say Raymond but it came out Rain Man. The imaginary friend who had sung to him as boy was in fact his older brother. The revelation is startling, made more so when Raymond produces an aged, creased photograph showing a young Raymond holding Charlie. It has profound effect on the younger brother. The two reminisce, piecing it together, gently recalling the song Raymond would sing to calm the boy. We see a connection, already binding, take hold.
Levinson makes an interesting choice in filming this reveal in the hotel bathroom. What might have been a done by others in a more open illuminated setting, Levinson allows to unfold in the cramped confines of a small room, dimly lit by the overhead lighting above the sink. It’s personal, it’s close, it’s intimate. More important is the mirror behind Charlie, a stained, tinted and aged wall-mounted glass framed in ornate but faded gold paint. It is not the standard, simple stainless steel framed mirror found in most roadside motels. This is a reminder of the past. It holds a distant reflection, and represents Charlie in the past. As the scene begins, Charlie is facing the mirror, talking to Raymond by turing his head, but it is the old Charlie, the one we have come to know and the one that Charlie still believes is true reflected in the glass. Raymond is not seen in the mirror because everything Raymond knows is genuine. He needs no reflection, he is already whole.
Then, the moment when Charlie realizes Raymond is actually Rain Man, he steps just forward enough so that he is no longer seen in the mirror. A split has occurred. Charlie faces straight ahead and the mirror is empty. Even more suggestive of the reveal is the window, now in sight next to the mirror, adorned in a dingy yellowed drape so old it is tattered and frayed. Charlie is framed directly in front of it, his eyes and expression one of disbelief, wonder, shock, understanding, and more. The view to the world he once knew is now utterly torn apart. Charlie Babbitt is changing.
Raymond walks out and now it is his turn to have his back to the mirror, only for a moment, because it is important to remember that this is also a significant change for him as well. He can now embrace that past, to make the long lost connection that has remained so firmly set in his mind. When he returns, from then on, Charlie never faces the mirror. We see in its reflection only his back. He has, in essence, turned on it and is looking in a new direction. Raymond returns to his spot beside him and now we move to the final, heartbreaking revelation.
Charlie reaches to draw a bath, twisting the knob and letting water flow into the tub, visible steam rising from the faucet. This sends Raymond into turmoil as he shrieks, pounding on his head, pulling Charlie from the water. He starts shouting about hot water burn baby, hot water burn baby and it becomes clear the baby is in fact Charlie and Raymond hurt him as a child. Charlie realizes that this is why Raymond was put into an institution. Raymond was a danger to the baby. Charlie is the reason his brother was locked away. It’s devastating.
What’s remarkable about this scene is how it pulls together much of what we suspected and what we already guessed while still being effective. It brings back the story of the Rain Man mentioned in the beginning and while it was tossed aside as a childish memory then, easily forgotten by the viewer, it is drawn back into the fold in an entirely believable and ever so satisfying way. Of course Raymond is Rain Man. We begin to recognize that these are brothers not so different from each other, from the repeated use of the word “definitely” by both of them to their love of driving, the Beatles, and even a good joke. Levinson wisely lets his two leads do what they do best, never using the camera to distract, never letting a single note of music try to manipulate. He trusts Cruise and Hoffman and it pays off in remarkable ways. When it’s over and Raymond is tucked in his bed and Charlie is across the room sitting on his, we are as exhausted as they are. We know there is still much ahead, but we are changed by the experience. Charlie doesn’t need to be scared. He’s found his Rain Man again, and this time, he’s never letting him go.
Director: Barry Levinson
Writers: Barry Morrow (story), Ronald Bass (screenplay)
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Valeria Golino