An Updated Review of Rain Man

In light of recent events, the media has focused on autism, particularly Asperger’s Syndrome. In the haste to break the latest “news,” accuracy has been sacrificed for speed. Asperger’s is being portrayed as an excuse for the inexcusable. In truth, the unspeakable crimes of recent days have nothing to do with this condition. This misinformation has made me wonder how one of my favorite films, Rain Man, would be viewed through today’s prism. If Rain Man were released today, I think the review would read like this:


Rain Man is the latest film from Barry Levinson, known for such diverse output as Diner, Good Morning Vietnam and The Natural. This time, he takes on the difficult subject of mental illness with decidedly mixed results. Dustin Hoffman is excellent in the role of Raymond Babbitt, a psychotic middle-aged man. Tom Cruise, best known for Risky Business and Top Gun, is Hoffman’s equal as Charlie, Raymond’s brother. Unfortunately, these stellar performances are weighted down by Levinson’s unrealistic take on a serious subject and a script best described as a work of pure fantasy.

Charlie is the Narcissistic son of the recently deceased Sanford Babbitt who leaves his $3,000,000 estate to a Cincinnati mental institution while Charlie receives only a vintage Buick Roadmaster and some prize rose bushes. Charlie immediately travels to the hospital to get to the bottom of his father’s inexplicable largesse. At the hospital, which is clearly a hospital for the criminally insane, Charlie discovers his long-lost brother Raymond. Raymond, he learns, has been in the hospital for many years. The horrific crime committed by Raymond is never fully explained.

Outraged that his father has left millions to care for his homicidal brother, Charlie kidnaps Raymond and sets out for Los Angeles. In a particularly disturbing scene where Raymond has a dangerous psychotic episode, Charlie decides not to fly to LA, no doubt realizing that Raymond poses a grave threat to the safety of the passengers. Thus, Charlie, his girl friend (the lovely Valeria Golino from Big Top Pee Wee) and the unhinged Raymond set out cross-country in Charlie’s Buick.

After a series of misadventures, Charlie learns that Raymond is an autistic savant with amazing abilities to recall dates and make complex mathematical calculations. During a chilling scene where Raymond flies into a rage of violent insanity, Charlie learns that Raymond was actually hospitalized for attempting to murder him when Charlie was an infant.

Early in the film, Levinson builds a tense story reminiscent of Psycho. Then, he loses his nerve and Rain Man becomes little more than a modern-day Road Movie where the audience must suspend disbelief for such diversions as a trip to Las Vegas. The thought that a shallow character like Charlie could keep a raging maniac like Raymond at bay is at best laughable. In one particularly inane scene, Raymond actually visits the home of complete strangers. Does he strangle the family or perhaps hack them to pieces, as the story to that point would dictate? No. He watches TV with them. Imagine Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre attending a church fish fry and you get the idea of the grotesque and inappropriate imagery.

By the end of the film, Levinson abandons any effort to bring realism to the film The penultimate scene involves a show down over the inheritance, pitting Charlie against the hospital. I won’t give away the ending other than to note that it was a crushing disappointment. Raymond, having been led across the country like a mad dog on a VERY short leash, sits passively while the action takes place around him. Just at the moment when logic and the story itself dictate a hail of gun fire, the directors cops out for saccharine sweet ending. I have no respect for film makers who won’t stay true to their own story. The only reason I don’t give away the ending is that it is so ridiculous no one would believe it. Just as Levinson did with The Natural–by tacking on a Hollywood ending and rendering his source material unrecognizable–he does the same here turning homicidal psychopathy into little more than a series of parlor tricks.

Every so often, a director has a chance to explore the inner workings of the mind of a psychotic without exploiting the story (Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood). Rather than take that bold leap, Levinson settles for a cheap story of a lovable misanthrope played for laughs and manipulated for false sentimentality. It’s a shame that Hoffman’s and Cruise’s fine performances end up obliterated by the nonsense of the story.

Not since Hogan’s Heroes treated Nazism as sitcom material has the public been subjected to such baffling artistic judgment. Levinson has made fine films and may well do so again. If Rain Man interests you, I suggest you search for a copy of the Jerry Lewis’s lost classic, The Day The Clown Cried, about a clown in a Nazi concentration camp. I guarantee it is more believable.

Unfortunately, today’s news is just as inane and inaccurate as this review.
© 2012

An Homage to Next of Kin

Have you seen the 1989 film Next of Kin?  If you have, I don’t expect a public acknowledgement.  Just softly say to yourself  “Yes, I have seen Next of Kin.  Please blog about it.”  I have, in fact, seen NOK, several times in fact.  Understand that this is not a movie review.  NOK is unreviewable with its wild cast of characters, Byzantine plot and acting that borders on hysteria.  Yes, I love this movie.  Allow me to explain why.

NOK stars, in no particular order:  Patrick Swayze, Adam Baldwin, Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Liam Neeson, Ben Stiller and Michael J. freakin’-Pollard.  I’m not making this up.  There may not be a more diverse cast in the history of cinema.  Pollard alone makes it worth watching.  You know him–he’s the weird dude with the scrunched up face in Bonnie and Clyde.

Here’s the plot.  Swayze (at his the peak of his Swayzeness) is a Chicago cop from Eastern Kentucky (Hazard, I think).  Neeson and Paxton are his brothers.  Paxton loses his job in the coal mines and moves to Chicago.  He somehow crosses the Chicago mob headed by the guy who played the one-armed man in The Fugitive.  Paxton gets murdered, and Swayze sets out to find the killer.  Neeson, portraying “Briar,” heads to Chicago to exact Mountain Justice.  He is disgusted by Swayze’s unwillingness to join in the blood feud.  He moves into a sleazy hotel run by Pollard who twitches and shrugs through all his scenes like he’s mainlining Thorazine.  Briar speaks with an accent which can only be described as “brain-damaged,” but I have to give him credit for trying.  I’m sure it’s difficult to go from an Irish brogue to Eastern Kentuckian.  Not since Edward G. Robinson played an Egyptian in The Ten Commandments has there been such a bizarre casting choice.

Anyway, Ben Stiller is the nephew of the head of the Mob (One-Armed Guy).  Ben gets himself brutally murdered.  Meanwhile, Briar is trying to find Bill Paxton’s killers, while Swayze is trying to stop him from being a vigilante.  Helen Hunt is Swayze’s wife and teaches the cello.  She frets a lot. There’s a lot of violence and other stuff.  Briar is also murdered after being framed for killing Ben Stiller.  Unbeknownst to the Mob, Briar has left instructions with Michael J. Pollard to call his relatives in Kentucky if something happens to him.  Swayze then quits the police force to join in the blood feud.  The Kentuckians show up in a bunch of trucks and a school bus.  A battle takes place between the mountain men and the mob in a cemetery. Swayze goes off on the Mob with a crossbow. The mob is wiped out with some of them even being killed by a huge collection of deadly snakes on the school bus.  Then the movie just kind of ends–happily, I guess, expect for Liam Neeson, Bill Paxton and Ben Stiller–and the Mob.

Why do I love this piece of cinematic tripe?  Maybe it’s Liam Neeson, at what was surely the low point of his career, portraying an Appalachian backwoodsman. How did he establish a successful career after this? Then again, Helen Hunt won an Oscar after NOK.  Perhaps it’s Ben Stiller in a decidedly non-comedic role playing a mobster. He also went on to great success.  It could just be Swayze, beating and killing people when the dude was only about 5′ 7″, 145 pounds.  Michael J. Pollard might have been the key.  I envision the casting director saying:  “What’s the name of the weird cat in Bonnie and Clyde?  Wonder where he is these days?”  He was probably working the hoot owl shift at a convenience store.  Hell, he may have actually been working at that sleazy hotel.

Ok.  I don’t know why I like NOK, but I do.  I like to think that somewhere in Eastern Kentucky there is a family that would load up and head to Chicago and wipe out the Mob.  That Michael J. Pollard works at a sleazy hotel somewhere.  That Helen Hunt teaches the cello.  That Ben Stiller is in the Mob.  That Swayze is still alive and implausibly kicking ass somewhere right now.  I don’t know.  Maybe I just have no taste.

© 2012

Reflections on Road House

On February 3, 2012, Ben Gazzara died.  He was an actor, and I’ll admit that I don’t know much about him.  I vaguely recall that he was in movies directed by John Cassavettes, none of which I’ve seen.  He was one of those actors that looked familiar.  If you saw him in an airport, you’d probably say “Hey, there’s Glenn Ford!”  I heard once that all men deserve to be remembered for their best work.  Of course, this isn’t at all true.  Charles Manson is a fine guitar player and Hitler liked dogs, but they shouldn’t be remembered for these traits. Mr. Gazzara probably had kids, hobbies and many fine qualities. I shall remember him for one thing:  Road House.

Road House is a movie directed (I think) by Rowdy Herrington who probably directed other films, but I don’t know that for a fact.  I love Road House.  I don’t pretend that it is art or even necessarily entertainment, but I can’t take my eyes off it when it’s on TV.  It stars Mr. Gazzara, Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch (as a doctor!), Sam Elliott (who seems drunk), Kevin Tighe (star of the TV series “Emergency!” as the guy who isn’t Randy Mantooth), John Doe (that’s his name), Red West (Elvis’s best friend), Terry Funk (the wrestler) and bunch of other people.  It centers around a bar—or “road house”—called the Double Deuce in a non-descript Missouri town.  The DD doles out liquor, drugs, sex and ass-whippings in equal measure.  It’s the kind of place that I hope exists somewhere.  Swayze is a “cooler” which is a kind of bouncer CEO.  He fights, loves, smokes, drinks coffee and cleans up the DD.  Mr. Gazzara is Brad Wesley, a kind of Godfather of the town.  He evidently controls all the local vice and has made a large fortune doing so.  He can do things like drive a monster truck over a car lot, burn buildings and stab Sam Elliott without so much as a police investigation.  After a lot of fighting and killing, the movie ends with a blood bath at Wesley’s mansion punctuated by wildly inappropriate comic relief.  In the final scene, Swayze and Dr. Lynch happily skinny dip.

As Brad Wesley, Ben Gazzara is over the top in all the best ways.  He sneers, chews up scenery and menaces everyone, including his own cabal of inept henchmen.  He beats women, kills people and terrorizes the guy from Emergency! who owns the DD.  He is completely foul and contemptible.  In other words, he’s the ultimate villain.  He’s not an anti-hero.  You can’t cheer for him.  You want him dead, and that’s exactly what happens.

Like a lot of poorly scripted movies, there are way too many characters and way too much going on in Road House.  The constant, steadying force is Brad Wesley.  He’s hated by everyone in the no-name town, and he hates them more.  In the end, he absorbs a tremendous ass-whipping from Swayze of the sort that would fell Jason Vorhees.  Yet, it takes about 200 rounds of ammo to finally take him out.  He’s dead, and we’re happy.  That’s fine acting, I say.

I love every rotten, poorly-shot, over-acted minute of Road House, due in no small measure to Ben Gazzara.  I bet he made a lot of good movies.  Maybe he even won awards for his acting.  You’d probably like to have a drink with him.  I doubt he ever killed anyone, but who knows? Maybe he did.  Like Swayze, he died of pancreatic cancer.  If he had children, they’re mourning his passing—unlike Brad Wesley whose violent end was met with laughter.  He probably had a bunch of friends and did a lot of good things.  What I’m saying is that I’m sure almost everything he did was better than Road House.  I’m also willing to guess that more people have seen his performance as Brad Wesley than anything else he did.  That’s not a bad thing.  RIP Ben.