Do you know about "high level" autistic people? They are amazingly intelligent. They can carry on conversations, memorize phone books, follow schedules, recite statistics, calculate square roots, and count the number of toothpicks spilled on the floor in just a few seconds. But they can't think abstractly -- they can't tell you the price of a car in comparison to the price of a candy bar. Also, they get rather disturbed when someone interrupts their routine.
Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) is a "high level" autistic man living in a mental hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. When his father dies, he inherits $3 million, much to his brother's dismay. Raymond's brother, Charlie (Tom Cruise), never knew about him. He was very angry to hear that their estranged father left everything to Raymond except for a 1949 Buick Roadmaster. Charlie leaves his shaky car business in Los Angeles and travels to Ohio to find out where his father's estate went. When Charlie discovers Raymond, he decides to abduct him and bring him back to his home in L.A. until he gets his share of the money.
Unfortunately, Raymond refuses to fly (he knows about crashes at every major airline expect for one, which only departs from Australia). Therefore, Charlie and Raymond begin a cross-country trip in the Roadmaster, which leads Charlie down a winding road to frustration, impatience, and eventually, self-discovery.
Barry Levinson, who stepped in after three previous directors bailed (it is revealed on the DVD commentary track that even Steven Spielberg was lined up to direct), finds a subtle sense of humor in Charlie's interaction with Raymond. The humor allows the film to succeed beyond a dramatic level, but on a comedic level as well. While it may be difficult to identify with Raymond, we can all identify with Charlie. I'm not saying that everyone is equally as self-absorbed and narrow-minded -- not even I am that cynical -- but just about everyone struggles with impatience, frustration, and confusion at times. Take one scene in which Charlie argues with his girlfriend, Susanna, which makes us laugh simply because we identify with Charlie's frustration:
Susanna: You use me, you use Raymond, you use everybody.Charlie: Using Raymond? Hey Raymond, am I using you? Am I using you Raymond?Raymond: Yeah.Charlie. Shut up! He's answering a question from a half hour ago.
Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow's script flows effortlessly from scene to scene and makes perfect sense. It's a familiar formula -- the "odd couple" road movie -- but it feels refreshingly new thanks to the engaging chemistry between Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, and the uniqueness of their circumstances.
Reportedly, Hoffman was originally selected to play Charlie, but after seeing a blind woman with cerebral palsy play full concerto on the piano, he decided to play the part of Raymond. He's perfect for the role, and I can't imagine him playing Charlie. That role belongs to Tom Cruise, who is swimming in familiar waters with another egotistical character, but brings freshness and edge to his performance nonetheless. Hoffman -- in a stunningly consistent, career defining performance -- gives Raymond a lovable personality, yet is careful to distance himself from everyone else.
Rain Man works so well because of its simplicity. It doesn't try to perform miracles or discover cures; instead, it merely observes a man's acceptance and self-discovery. In the history of the cinema, very few "odd couples" have complimented each other in the way that Cruise and Hoffman's do in Rain Man. They resonate beyond their fictional limitations, harboring in our memories, and occasionally surface at times when we find ourselves inpatient or frustrated. It reminds us how we can all strive to be better people.