When Rain Man came out, I enjoyed it, but soon came to sour on the film for its easy emotional manipulation and an affected star turn by Dustin Hoffman. I didn’t credit Hoffman the prescience of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder (“never go full retard”) and found Hoffman’s portrayal of an autistic adult unsubtle and obvious. Perhaps had I waited until Al Pacino’s blind rampage in Scent of a Woman, I would have been more forgiving.
Pauline Kael called it “a piece of wet kitsch” and I can’t say I could have disagreed. Rain Man has always maintained a spot in the pantheon of overpraised domestic drama Oscar winners that, I assumed, would age very ungracefully (see Forrest Gump, American Beauty, Crash).
Rain Man has hit the schedule on my pay movie channels, and yes, it is emotionally manipulative and yes, it does sport some of the more annoying hallmarks of the 80s (a Hans Zimmer synthesized score that would put him on the map, a few too many montage scenes, a gorgeous and pointless female lead, Valeria Golino, who came and went). But Hoffman’s performance as a hidden older brother to Tom Cruise (Cruise learns of him upon their wealthy father’s death and “kidnaps” him to have an edge in getting his share of the will) is very strong. What unfortunately became represented by cute catchphrases (“I’m an excellent driver”, “10 minutes to Wapner”) is actually a canny, deep portrayal of a tortured soul, and director Barry Levinson never really lets you forget the dangers that lie therein. Much like Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, Hoffman is endearing until he is terrifying, and at exactly the moment Spielberg would have inserted treacle, Levinson has Hoffman explode again.
Tom Cruise is even better in his role as Hoffman’s wheeler-dealer, LA smooth brother, Ray. His frustration with Hoffman is communal. His entire performance is a study in anger at Hoffman, not for being denied his loving company or for being shut out by his father, but because Hoffman is an annoying lunatic. “I know you’re in there somewhere,” he screams, and while he undergoes change in his time with the afflicted Hoffman, he does not become redeemed so much as educated.
The film is also very, very funny, perhaps too much so for our times. I can imagine grievance groups objecting to the use of an autistic adult for chuckles, but the screenwriters’ (Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass, the former of whom, like Golino, pretty much disappeared after this film) don’t pull many punches and the exchanges between Hoffman and Cruise are often brutally comic: