A Look Back: Rain Man

“Ray? I know you can hear me. I know you’re in there somewhere.” – Tom Cruise in Rain Man

Bad things started to happen to movie yuppies in the late eighties and continued for a period after that. Suddenly, greed was no longer quite as “good” as it originally was, and there appeared multiple mainstream films in which white, upwardly mobile American men wound up getting struck by cancer (“The Doctor”), brain injured in a freak accident (“Regarding Henry”) or on a more whimsical note, returning to Never Neverland (“Hook”) in order to realize that missing their child’s ball game/dance recital/whatever because they’re workaholics was not okay. Maybe since “Rain Man,” (deservedly) won a lot of Oscars, other directors started thinking the next golden formula was evil yuppie plus a healthy dose of humility equals Academy Award.

The older Tom Cruise in “Rain Man,” shares some similarities to his character in “Risky Business,” including a penchant for grinning and wearing sunglasses, and an insensitive, distant dad, but fortunately, he isn’t married, has no children and perhaps as result, gets off with a much lighter “sentence.” At the beginning of the movie, he is busy doing sports car dealer deals, when he gets the news that his father has passed away. The dad and Tom are estranged, so it isn’t a tragedy or anything – except when Tom discovers that dad has left him his own cherished sports car and some rosebushes, while a brother he never knew he had gets the remainder (millions). Of course, this is too unfair to ignore, so Tom goes and tracks down the brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), who is autistic, lives in an institution and doesn’t seem able to acknowledge Tom’s presence or respond to the news that their father is dead.

Dustin does, however, seem to remember Tom’s car, which he remembers driving, “slow on the driveway, but not on Monday. Definitely not on Monday.” and since he knows the father’s full name, address, etc., this is convincing.  So despite his brother’s obvious handicap, Tom, amazingly easily, manages to coerce his brother into the car and drives off unimpeded (hoping to hold him hostage, but the particulars of this remain vague). Tom also takes along his girlfriend (Valeria Golino) so that she can serve as proxy for the audience and constantly remind him that taking an autistic man on an impromptu cross-country trip is a little dumb, not to mention callous. After all, you can’t get much more of an unstructured activity than that.  (At one point, she leaves him but then reappears in time for some hijinks in Vegas.)

Unlike some Hollywood movie characters who wind up in a mental institution because they are a Free Spirit clashing with a repressive society, Dustin is there (we eventually learn) because of very specific circumstances revolves around Young Tom’s safety.  Which makes the father more interesting. What was it like for him as a single father raising two sons, one of whom with special needs that were probably poorly understood at the time?  Has he actually engineered the will in order to encourage Tom to finally get in touch with the brother?  How did the dad manage to erase all traces of his older son anyway, so that the younger has been convinced for a long time that “Rain Man” was an imaginary childhood friend?

But this a buddy movie of sorts with two major actors, and so the focus is instead on the brothers and how their relationship is shaped by the road trip.  Tom tries in his own way to be accommodating, but his brother constantly seems to be thwarting his efforts, no less on purpose!  Fish sticks for dinner?  Sure, no problem – except they arrive in the wrong amount.  Things also get tricky when Tom wants to fly, but Dustin refuses to set foot on any plane whose airline has a record of crashes – which is all, except for Qantas, which only flies to Australia.  (Surprisingly, this scene was edited when “Rain Man” was shown on airplanes.)  So it’s time to hit the road again.

As he spends more time with his brother, it becomes obvious that Dustin has some remarkable savant-like skills with numbers and also has a photogenic memory when it comes to reading the phone book.  So Tom decides to make a pit stop in Vegas in order to gamble.  However, when they finally reach their destination, and Tom finally begins to acknowledge that he can’t provide round the clock supervision for his brother, things come to a more sober end.  But it’s clear that the two have bonded in their own way and will still be in touch, no doubt for the rest of their lives.





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