Rain Man (Rated R, 133 minutes)
The 1989 Best Picture winner has been parodied so many times that I always assumed it was one of the lesser winners. And I carried this bias while watching the first twenty minutes: it seemed like a simple one-dimensional showcase of Hoffman’s talents. But by the end, this layered picture had me emotionally invested in the outcome, and it also reminds all why Tom Cruise became an A-list celebrity. Yes, in its most basic form Rain Man is a road trip story mixed with ‘fish out of water’ elements; because of Raymond’s disability, he seems like a newborn child experiencing the world for the first time, which makes the movie partially feel like it is playing off of the character’s disability. But it is a joy to watch the brotherly relationship blossom between the arrogant Charlie (Cruise) and the mentally disabled Raymond (Hoffman).
The main reason why this film works is the fantastic acting; though Dustin Hoffman had the ‘showy’ performance, this is fully a Tom Cruise vehicle. Cruise’s Charlie is a fast talking egotistical jerk with ‘con man’ tendencies; yet, like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, he makes the character likable, and most importantly, relatable. But with Hoffman’s ‘loud’ performance, people will forget the nuanced work done by Cruise. Yes, Hoffman is great but his role screams ‘Oscar bait,’ which is the equivalent of Christian Bale’s Dicky in The Fighter: and like Mark Walhberg in The Fighter, Tom Cruise’s performance was lost in the award season shuffle.
And the fact that Hoffman got all the accolades is sad because this, in my opinion, is Cruise’s most human performance. Yes, he is fantastic in Jerry Maguire, Born on the Fourth of July, and Magnolia, which is coincidentally his three Oscar nominations: but those are the louder performances that the Academy usually recognizes. On the other hand, Rain Man makes a seemingly cookie cutter plot realistic, by taking the extremely flawed Charlie and not changing him completely. He may have changed from being emotionally jaded, but like a real human being, his faults are still clearly evident by the end. And while many watched this for Hoffman’s role, Charlie’s sensible journey is the reason why I became emotionally invested with the outcome of the movie.
With that said, Hoffman and Cruise work great with each other; while I do complain that Hoffman’s role is ‘Oscar bait,’ I cannot deny his commitment to the character. But the film would not have worked without the chemistry between the two leads: so much so that I hope that they will be able work with each other in the foreseeable future. Now, as the movie progresses Charlie becomes more accepting of Raymond’s problems, but he continues to use Raymond for his own gains: so even though they get closer, the audience knows that Charlie is still too immature to actually help his brother. And this is heartbreaking because we hope that both characters will make up for lost time by living together happily. But logically it is impossible, which makes the audience emotionally devastated: especially during the final meeting to decide Raymond’s fate.
With that said, this Best Picture winner suffers because it was made in the 80s; this may sound silly, but in my opinion, the movie suffers from being too 80s. While it is not as bad the 80s music video known as Top Gun, certain elements lose emotional impact because of the cheesy clothes or music. For instance, Hans Zimmer’s nominated score, which was his first nomination in his long career, is not Oscar worthy; yes, it fits the movie perfectly, but his ridiculous ‘Genesis-like’ theme song is more off-putting than alluring. But again, this has to do more with my taste than the fault of the composer or the film: in my opinion, a lot of 80s movies have weird riffs that sound cheesy and hinder the emotional investment of the viewer.
Also, Barry Levinson, in hindsight, did not deserve the Best Director Oscar for Rain Man. That 1989 Best Director class was filled with fantastic directors, but Levinson’s simplistic direction in Rain Man feels ‘out of place’ when looking at the other 1989 nominations: like Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ or Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning. But, it is important to point out that certain portions of his direction are interesting: two scenes in particular stick out and coincidently both take place in Las Vegas. The first person shot of Raymond getting ready for his date gives the audience an interesting ‘point of view’ of a mentally disabled person who struggles to focus on one thing: this shot is a change of pace from the plain visual style.
The second and more interesting shot is when Raymond first sees the casino floor. While the film does not explicitly say that it is through Raymond’s ‘point of view,’ the feverish dream that lights up the screen portrays a hyper-realized state, which is how someone as special as Hoffman’s character would see something as lively as a packed casino. But again, besides these two interesting shots I cannot give his directing any further credit. The camera gives the characters control: as if the camera is just following them on their journey, which makes sense in a character driven movie. But again, Levinson’s directing still feels uninventive and undeserving of the 1989 Oscar.
All in all, Rain Man pleasantly surprised me; I did not expect to become emotionally invested in a ‘road trip’ film that seemed to use a mental handicap to drive the plot. However, this needs to be seen for the performances of its two leads: Rain Man is a fitting reminder that Tom Cruise can act. And in my quest to see all the Best Picture winners, I expected to be surprised by a few films, but I just did not expect it would be this Cruise and Hoffman vehicle. With that said, my emotional investment in the two characters, in my opinion, solidifies its win in 1989 and the fact that Rain Man has aged well.