One of the year’s most intriguing film premises – a callow young hustler (Tom Cruise) must gain the confidence of his autistic brother (Dustin Hoffman) in order to pry away from him an enormous inheritance – is given uneven, slightly off-target treatment in UA’s “Rain Man.”
Casting of Cruise and various other aspects suggest an attempt to broaden audience appeal rather than deepen the story. Even so, pic should do very well as a quality alternative in a holiday box office dominated by comedies.
Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt is an autistic savant, a person extremely limited in some mental areas and extremely gifted in others. His younger brother, hard-driving luxury car dealer Charlie Babbitt (Cruise), has his limitations, too – mostly in the areas of kindness and understanding.
Unaware of Raymond’s existence (he’d been institutionalized when Charlie was very young) until his estranged father dies, Charlie is brought up short when he learns the old man’s entire $3 million fortune has been willed to his brother.
After a trip to the East Coast institution where Raymond resides, Charlie shanghais him, without regard for his welfare, into a cross-country trip to L.A., dangling a Dodger game as bait. Meanwhile, he threatens Raymond’s guardian, the bland Dr. Bruner (Jerry Molen), with a custody battle unless he hands over half the fortune.
Director Barry Levinson (“Diner,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,”) lingers long on the road trip segment, building the relationship between the brothers degree by degree and decorating it with spectacular, if self-conscious, landscapes shot through tinted lenses. Result is lightly engrossing, buoyed here and there by emergence of Raymond’s unique abilities (for example, he can memorize half a telephone book in an evening and also can perform extravagant multiplications in a flash).
Along the way, Charlie, whose talents seem at first confined to barking orders and being inconsiderate, is getting his edges buffed by Raymond’s ingratiating eccentricities and attachment to routine.
Then Charlie learns by phone, in Tucumcari, N.M., that he’s just lost $80,000 in a business deal, and pic’s placid surface erupts in a bombast of music and camera tricks as he takes Raymond to the Las Vegas gaming tables to exploit his mathematical genius. Needless to say, it’s a very successful idea. Raymond even learns a little about women, and in a charming scene with Cruise, learns how to dance.
For most of its longish 140 minutes, “Rain Man” is limited by its subject – it’s about getting to know a guy (Raymond) who can’t respond or change except by the slightest degrees. Road segment often feels hastily, loosely written, with much extraneous screen time. By the last third, pic becomes quite moving as these two very isolated beings discover a common history and deep attachment.
If an actor with more range than Cruise had been cast, pic might have gone over the top in its final scenes. As is, it stops a little short. It’s a mature assignment for Cruise and he’s at his best in the darker scenes. When the executor of the will shields information from him, the actor displays an utterly grim, brickheaded determination that is frightening.
Hoffman achieves an exacting physical characterization of Raymond, from his constant nervous movements to his rigid, hunched shoulders and childish gait. Though he can neither look anyone in the eye nor engage in real conversation, Raymond certainly can be funny, with his well-timed offhand responses to Charlie’s hammering questions. (Cruise: Raymond, am I using you? Hoffman: Yeah.)
Italian actress Valeria Golino strikes just the right chord as Charlie’s sensitive, long-suffering girlfriend.
Though it never builds a great deal of momentum, “Rain Man” does offer some delightful scenes of droll comedy in running gags between the two brothers, built around such daily trivia as maple syrup and boxer shorts.
Locations, costumes and tech contributions are good, particularly considering pic was lensed in a rushed nine weeks of location work.
Music by Hans Zimmer is fresh and provocative.