Barry Levinson’s Rain Man belongs to a genre of movies I love: the “road picture.” In these films, partly derived from medieval literature (such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s unfinished The Canterbury Tales, from the late fourteenth century), one or more characters journey, by foot or by vehicle, through a physical landscape that acts as correlative to the mental landscape that one or more of them traverse in their odyssey of spiritual growth or some other form of enlightenment. Four masterpieces of the genre are, co-scripted by Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God’s Fool or The Flowers of St. Francis, 1950), Fellini’s own La strada (The Road, 1954), Luis Buñuel’s La voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969) and Wim Wenders’s Im Lauf der Zeit (In the Course of Time, or Kings of the Road, 1976). Wonderful, also, are Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Franciscan Uccellacci e uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows, 1966; not Pasolini’s only good film but, really, his only likeable one), Wenders’s antidote to Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973), Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten, 1974), and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991). These are in fact only a few of the riches with which the genre is studded. But there have been failures, as well; massive in this regard is Stanley Kubrick’s soulless Lolita (1962), which not even Vladimir Nabokov’s script, based on his own novel, one of the twentieth century’s greatest, can elevate beyond the filmmaker’s cold and oppressive literalism, and his disdain for the characters. One revisits in the mind the result of Kubrick’s disaster as one watches Levinson’s film. Rain Man, which took its year’s best picture Oscar, is not that bad, but it’s an unfeeling, unimaginative, largely sentimental work, and it takes an enormous toll on credibility both in its farfetched plot and its indifference to the fate of its characters—the exact opposite of what the “road” genre promises. It’s at times hilariously funny (its saving grace); but whenever the film takes itself seriously (which is often), it runs out of gas.
The vehicle transporting two brothers westward from Cincinnati, across the American landscape, destination L.A., is a gleaming white 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible, part of young Charlie Babbitt’s inheritance, along with some rosebushes, following the death of his multimillionaire father, from whom he had estranged himself from the time he left home at 16. (Reporting it stolen, his father had had Charlie arrested and jailed when the boy borrowed without permission the vintage car.) Consequently, an embittered Charlie refused to return his father’s phone calls, never again speaking to the man; but the script, by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow from Morrow’s original story, makes plain that Babbitt transferred his self-aborted filial feelings to cars, becoming a Los Angeles dealer on the verge of bankruptcy now as the Lamborghinis he imported are detained in customs while customers clamor and the bank demands repayment of his tens-of-thousands loan. If only his father had left him half of the three million dollars that Raymond Babbitt has inherited—this, the older brother of his who had slipped Charlie’s memory because, when Charlie was very young, the widower had had his elder son institutionalized following an incident where Raymond endangered his younger brother with hot water. Learning afresh that he has such a brother, Charlie, feeling desperate, kidnaps Raymond, holding him hostage in exchange for what he feels is his rightful half of his father’s estate. But the institution’s director, genuinely concerned about Raymond, feels duty-bound to honor the deceased’s wishes.
One cannot imagine a sane person finding this narrative set-up other than ridiculous; the way it’s slipped into the script suggests that even Bass and Morrow find the notion that Charlie recalls in place of Raymond only a fantasy friend called “Rain Man” laughable. There are more holes than cloth here; for instance, whatever success his father may have had around the house at eradicating evidence of his elder son, how is it possible that Charlie never encountered anyone else who remembered Raymond, either? (The script, which tortures sense and human possibility, won its authors Oscars.) Raymond, it turns out, is autistic—what used to be called, the film reminds us, an idiot savant. I became fascinated by autism long before I had the name for it; one of the stories I cherished as a child is “Wooden Tony,” one of Lucy Lane Clifford’s Victorian Anyhow Stories. Raymond, in Rain Man, is a “high-functioning” example; his capacity for rapid mathematical calculations is awesome. Thus the cynical tack of the script. Since what is realistic here, about Raymond’s autism, seems so impossible, Bass and Morrow—and, of course, Levinson—feel they can get away with other impossibilities they wish to cram in. This is a slap in the face of all legitimate film writing. The audience is smacked with the same contempt.
As it happens, Raymond’s gift enables him to “count cards” at a Las Vegas casino, and this in turn solves his brother’s financial crisis—a painless evasion of the seriousness of one of the story’s few compelling and realistic elements. The gambling excursion derails not only the road trip but the film; it wars with the naturalism of the film’s earlier presentation. I confess: I love the automotive journey in Rain Man, for here is where the film’s comedy comes into rich and fragrant bloom, like the brothers’ father’s prize rosebushes. Especially winning in this regard are Charlie’s animated bouts of frustration with Raymond’s peculiar demands—for instance, boxers instead of briefs—and settled ways: those routines (watching daily certain TV shows, eating certain meals on certain days, etc.) that defend Raymond against an uncontrollable, at times scalding universe. Moreover, the glimpses of the American landscape that the film provides are moving and irresistible; John Seale’s color cinematography is bold and aching insofar as the Babbitt brothers seem oblivious to the gorgeous landscape, making of their separation from it a metaphor of their at-odds relationship and, more subtly, of Charlie’s (except through Raymond) irreversible estrangement from their father. Nevertheless, as in so many Hollywood films, the beauty of the sights papers over the emptiness underneath.
For the film arrives at nothing substantial and nowhere (for which L.A. may be too apt an inadvertent metaphor). Charlie, turning down an offer of $250,000, returns Raymond to his Ohio institution free of charge; a changed man, he insists (but keep in mind that his “transformation” hinges on the specious solution to his financial and business crisis that his brother miraculously provided), he tells Raymond that he will visit him two weeks hence. Loathsomely, the film fails to disclose whether Charlie keeps this promise—a mistake that Akira Kurosawa doesn’t make in Ikiru (1952), where we see the civil bureaucrats renegging on their resolution to become more responsive to community needs. Levinson is too cynical for words; he clings to the closing ambiguity to avoid resolving the central character issue that dogs Charlie—note the family name—Babbitt. This is Patton-filmmaking (in that 1970 film, audience members were invited to read in praise or censure of General Patton, depending on their own political disposition), with Levinson craftily and uncourageously dodging his responsibility to complete Charlie’s portrait, and thereby enabling sophisticated audiences to understand the ending one way and unsophisticated audiences to understand it in quite another. The way the actor playing Charlie handles the departure scene stresses Charlie’s sincerity; but the boy’s intentions are irrelevant. (Indeed, Kurosawa’s bureaucrats are no less sincere in their determination to turn over a new leaf at work.) We will never know whether in the course of the two intervening weeks (twice the length, mind you, of Charlie’s reacquaintance with his brother) he will be sufficiently distracted by his business to dismiss the fresh claims that Raymond has made on his long shutdown heart, and an incredibly naïve viewer may not even notice the calculated closing ambiguity at all. There’s no fool like a sedentary fool.
I prefer filmmakers who don’t play me, or the person sitting on either side of me in a movie house, for a fool. While these categories exist on a single continuum rather than in wholly different universes, whereas entertainers like Levinson manipulate their audiences, artists like Kurosawa focus instead on developing their thematic material and then share the result with their audience. Manipulation versus sharing; that sums up the different way that two different kinds of filmmakers (or writers, or painters, or what-have-you) think. Artists regard their audiences as equals, even if this means limiting the numbers of their audience; on the other hand, to rope in as many souls as they can, entertainers condescend to an audience, trying like a transregional political candidate to trick each audience segment into seeing and hearing what it wants to. This makes their work shallow and opportunistic; this is part of what makes Rain Man shallow and opportunistic.
The lead acting doesn’t help. Tom Cruise plays Charlie, the second-billed lead part. Cruise is (I swear) spectacularly funny as Charlie copes with Raymond’s demands and socially inappropriate behaviors; but his portrait of greed is perplexingly nonanalytical—a shortcoming Levinson magnifies by failing to contextualize this greed in terms of some understanding of American society, its needs and drives. Cruise competently projects Charlie’s narcissism and meanspiritedness (not exactly a stretch for Cruise, who would repeat the same part so often that it’s now impossible not to believe that he is playing himself); but he offers no intellectual or intuitive insight into the mechanisms of these character traits, and as a result the change in Charlie that the script seems to suggest, which in reality would most likely be part of the same mechanism, attaches itself to no convincing basis. Cruise insists that we take his performance on faith, seduced by its attractive surface, holding out no hope of any greater understanding than we had before we encountered it; his is therefore a religious rather than a psychological performance. Its one explanation, by default, would be divine intervention; God just came and zapped Charlie into his new incarnation, his better self. There is no inquiry on Cruise’s dead-headed part—no exploration or mining of Charlie or his alleged transformation. It’s a map on striking parchment with all the geographic features missing.
Finally, the contrast between Cruise’s Ty Power-pretty boy looks, coupled with his Joan Crawford-glamor, and the non-good looks and non-glamor of the actor playing Raymond wears thin and pointless through exhaustive repetition throughout the film. Indeed, it only places on Cruise and the other actor more of a burden to convince us that the two characters really are brothers—something that the film, cruising on its star personalities, rather quickly abandons all serious attempt to establish. The other actor is Dustin Hoffman, who won a best actor Oscar for his work here. Hoffman’s expert projection of the monotonousness, the seemingly dissociative nature, of the autistic man’s demeanor and behavior doubtless is the result of careful and astute observation. Thus far his is an impersonation, not an acting performance, which requires imagination as well as surface copying; as Pauline Kael has pointed out, Hoffman does nothing to illuminate what goes on beneath Raymond’s appearance. Perhaps Levinson wants us to induce an unmitigated void, with all of Raymond’s behaviors no more than blind and dumb compulsions; but here again such a tack seems more an evasion of interpretation than any sort of interpretation that might locate the character’s well-springs of humanity. Hoffman, like Cruise, seems to shy away from his character’s mechanisms, even Raymond’s coping mechanisms. To take us imaginatively to where we otherwise might find no way of going, that is, into Raymond’s mind, however, would have been the eager mission of an actor rather than an impersonator—an artist rather than a mere technician. It would have been left for us the audience to decide whether Hoffman’s leap of insight was persuasive; but, because Hoffman did not risk taking this leap, or lacked the imagination or humanity to take it, we are left with nothing but Raymond’s tics and mannerisms. Hoffman, like Cruise, is often very funny—and, at other times, very touching in his projection of Raymond’s raw reactions and sensitivity. Make no mistake: this is one of Hoffman’s best “performances”; but, like virtually all his work, it is depressingly (and disturbingly) lacking of any and all interest in human nature. It’s a thing assembled, not acted. When near the close Raymond makes a joke (which at least Charlie sees as some sort of breakthrough), it’s just another piece of the assemblage; it strikes no deeper chord than anything else.
Levinson, like Hoffman, is a good technician; for instance, the moment, near the close, when Charlie and Raymond silently touch heads is exquisitely timed. If Levinson were to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Edgar by his own inner light, he would say, “Glibness is all.” For the record, he has drawn from his diverse cast just one good performance: Valeria Golino as Susanne, Charlie’s lover and employee. Whatever inclination we may have to take on faith Charlie and his “transformation” largely derives from Susanne’s faith in the boy. To be sure, her lesser role doesn’t require Golino to tackle the sort of challenging matters that defeat the male leads; but the warmth, kindness, equanimity and breezy sensuality she brings to Susanne lend the film notes of decency and compassion that, along with its comical moments, keep us hoping that Levinson’s callous exercise in audience manipulation will defeat its own determined purpose and break into more caring, and sharing, territory.