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: A STUDY IN MADNESS
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.