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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Rain Man'--Not the Ordinary Buddy Film

December 16, 1988|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

Although it roams across expanses of America, "Rain Man" (citywide) is a small, mostly interior journey: the awakening of two walled-off souls. Actually, it's more like the greening of one soul, Tom Cruise's Charlie Babbitt, and the nudging of another, Dustin Hoffman's Raymond Babbitt, Charlie's older brother, whose autistic condition makes "awakening" far too dramatic a word.

Because we've had dozens of buddy films about journeys of discovery, we can plot the scenario like a road map: The special qualities of one will work on the other to change him, or perhaps both of them, and probably not for the worst.

In that respect "Rain Man" will disappoint no one. (It does hold a notable surprise, but more about that later.) Though it seems impossible that wheeler-dealer Charlie, Mr. Sharper Image incarnate, will ever put anyone ahead of Numero Uno, there's a little room for hope by the movie's end. And as far as the unelastic Raymond can stretch, he does, as he moves from lifelong institutionalization to a week of freedom on the road.

It's greed on Charlie's part that has brought the two together. Notified that his father has died, he goes back to Cincinnati to lay claim to his estranged parent's estate, some $3 million, only to learn that it's been left in trust to an older brother he never knew he had: Raymond. The next shock is learning that Raymond is autistic and institutionalized. The third shock comes when Charlie virtually kidnaps Raymond and sets out for Los Angeles, hoping to use Raymond's presence as leverage to work a deal for at least part of the money.

Charlie's savvy girlfriend Susanna (the splendid Valeria Golino) has put up with his egoism for the year they've gone together, but his coldheartedness with Raymond disgusts her, and she cuts out early in the trip. (Legions of Golino-watchers will be pleased to hear that she returns in the predictably crowd-pleasing Las Vegas sequence.)

Las Vegas aside, the film is an odd, dry odyssey, kept deliberately unsentimental by director Levinson ("Diner," "Tin Men") by writers Ronald Bass ("Gardens of Stone") and Barry Morrow (TV's "Bill: On His Own") and, in particular, by Hoffman's spare, poetic performance.

"Rain Man's" singularity lies in the challenge that Hoffman has set himself. In staying true to his character's limitations, Hoffman has an available range of emotions a little narrower than from A to A-.

Instead of making eye contact, Raymond stares upwards over his partner's shoulder. In the matter of his beloved television show, he has an interior clock more persistent than a migrating bird's. Ordered to choose between two very different options, he will pick one firmly. With the next sentence he will pick the other. And although his brain functions phenomenally with numbers, the concept of money is forever beyond him.

Somehow, Hoffman makes all this hypnotically interesting, and, through impeccable timing, sometimes terribly funny--a sweet humor which never betrays Raymond's unalterable character.

Identified with the film since its beginnings three directors ago, Hoffman creates a walled-off human being whom we understand, mostly, and whom we worry about prodigiously: Raymond next to high glass windows, Raymond terrified by a sudden loud noise, Raymond put off his rigid rituals of eating, dressing or watching "People's Court." By the time Charlie and Raymond's trip is only half over, we are even seeing the world as Raymond does. As struts, rails and fence posts fly by on the West-bound highway, we suddenly know exactly what Raymond's computer-brain is doing with them: Its counting them.

However, for an audience, Raymond's condition means that the whole trip is exactly the same. The scenery may change, but like a windup walking toy with lifetime batteries, Raymond never will. Everything else: color, variety, intensity and enough motive power to drive the story forward must come from Cruise. And that's where the picture's surprise lies.

As handsome, careless Charlie, an imported car broker about one subpoena away from being a con man, Cruise gives his loosest, most authoritative performance since "Risky Business," but one with far greater range and maturity. If Raymond seems rigid, Charlie, when we first meet him, is hardly a limitless fund of patience or tractability either. To watch ordinary decency flower in this rocky soul is an unfolding delight.

And it does flower, until Charlie's crucial scene with an obtrusive psychiatrist. That small, key role turns out to have been played by director Levinson himself. It's a strange choice by a usually sensitive film maker, since his talents may not entirely lie in this direction. Here, in what should be Cruise's pivotal scene, Levinson acts as a stone wall, giving back nothing and seemingly unsettling Cruise as well.

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