Rain Man (1988, Barry Levinson)
!! CAUTION !!
Must we really even talk about this in depth? It’s an embarrassment — to the people involved, to Hollywood, to America, to its time period — that the culture ever fell in with its pandering. Do you know what Rain Man is about, besides Actors doing their Acting, finding an excuse for a contrived perversion of Hope & Crosby on a protracted cross country trip with perfect Buster Keaton intervals of psychiatric offices, teevee binges, and yearnings for KMart? Oh, well, I’m glad you asked — This Is America, screams Barry Levinson and whatever cigar-chewing executive greenlit this. Far be it from us to consider any storytelling venture as having some immutable moral obligation but no, in case you’re wondering, this Adorable cartoon of mild danger and annoyance isn’t a Portrait of Autism, and that’s a voice of experience, or even a portrait of some specific person’s experience of same since it comes deeply from within the back pocket of some studio parking lot pitch.
They’re putting us on, the people in charge here, for what they see when they come up against a mundane human suffering or even an idyllic unorthodox existence is there are Laughs to be Had, Strings to be Pulled, a sentimental America to be dragged through the plight of characters who really deep down are just like us, really, kinda, aren’t they? Cause we’re all mentally ill and/or spoiled yuppie businessmen, whatever, close enough, look how tight and sharp they look in their suits these two, the innocent Americans are meant to screech like armies of the surrendered in movie houses across the country. We all join in cause we’re only so strong, but up in the rafters the gallant architects of our popular culture (five years ahead they plan it, I hear, pausing only for revolutions and strikes, one of the latter having backgrounded the shooting of this particular artifact) laugh and laugh and line their pockets with greenery, green as Tom Cruise’s empty-vessel little eyes.
Must I even tell you of the sense of dread that takes hold as soon as Rain Man starts? We’ve got nothing against the wider pop culture of the ’80s — why, in 1988 Depeche Mode was touring, and Lovesexy came out, and David and Maddie were still winning our hearts when they had the time — but Rain Man fades in on this garish and black-suited ’80s, cars in midair and car phones and car salesmen and a bucktoothed American playboy (Tom Cruise, future Father of Suri) with a boorish intensity to mask his complete absence of human warmth and presence. We’ll never know why the Illuminati selected Cruise to attempt “acting” but it’s gotta be something similar to the reason a boring old oaf like Jim Morrison was artificially selected as “voice” of something — when someone is that frighteningly nonexistent and unreal, a drooling mechanism of Hope, you can’t help but project all dreams onto them. In 1988, don’t tell me horny young dudes concentrated on the fact that Cruise’s character in this film — fuck looking up the character names, who gives a flying goddamned fuck about this piece of shit enough to do that — is a Screenwriting 101 Jerk (he ignores emotional appeals! he does irrational things! he’s obsessed with getting ahead! he has a Lesson to Learn about family and selling cars and brotherhood or something, and oh yeah, Life). No, they were concerned with the fact that he bossed people around, had a cool car and a girlfriend way too attractive and nice for him (an accent even!), and the resources to bolt around the country at random, the resources to virtually choose to fail, the disgusting modern capitalist variation on Frank Capra’s downtrodden heroes.
And also don’t tell me that the movie isn’t about Tom Cruise. Have you even seen it? The arc is his, the story is his, the change is his, the entire “emotional” structure is his; Dustin Hoffman’s cuddly autistic savant is just a catalyst, a convenient presence when needed. Hoffman is just something to give us all an anchor, something for the awards reel, aren’t we all sensitive cause we care about people and stuff. The real meat of the movie is in Cruise and his self-absorbed ranting about a zillion dollar inheritance he didn’t get, cause we’ve all been there, and in his scenes with Valeria Golino, who shows up so she can ask Cruise expository questions while he regards her with the passion and zeal of a piece of filth scraped off the bottom of his surely finely shined Botany 500s. (Is that even a brand of shoes? Don’t know or care.) Oh yeah, comic relief too: Hoffman bursting into a sex scene in progress for some proto-Teletubby “uh-oh”s, Hoffman wandering around the scene of a car accident in perpetual confusion and fear, Hoffman being set to a panic attack when a smoke alarm goes off. Insulting, repetitive and forced, sure, but a barrel of laughs.
Did I mention dread? Because that’s this entire ugly experience.
Hey you know what’s sort of good about this movie? The parts that show Levison’s visualization of Hoffman’s unspoken perspective on shapes new to him or big complex industrial structures, which give a glimpse into an inner world and temporarily make the film somewhat about a person without being as astonishingly condescending as it is virtually every other moment of its miserable existence. Because Hoffman’s an autistic savant and can count cards, he will of course be used by Cruise for help in gambling, and because this is the ’80s that will be set up as a really winning audience-friendly moment, and then he will be smooched upon and danced with by Golino and that will make a lot of sense too and will be a real moment for everyone to cheer cause some out of it guy with no idea what’s actually going on is being grinded on by his brother’s girlfriend, and that’s a real 1980s Hollywood romance, all underlined by Hans Zimmer’s hilarious synthetic music score, a real work of plastic art that sounds as though it might any minute get punctuated by a sharp Stephen Bishop vocal.
Yeah in fairness, Hoffman’s life is shown to be contented at the outset and then thrown into unnecessary upheaval by Cruise and he doesn’t immediately become a placid portrait of displaced institutionalization when Cruise literally kidnaps him (and this, again, is delivered as an OK thing that a person, our hero, does) — he gives Cruise a hard time, which is nice because someone fucking needs to, and Cruise’s assholery in the face of every petty annoyance is quite fascinating because you rarely see the raw mechanics of declining morals within a sociopath depicted onscreen, particularly embodied by an actor who’s himself completely off his rocker. All the same, I don’t want to reuse this phrase, but Hoffman’s “cuddliness” is rampant and scored him numerous awards — he’s the most convenient autism sufferer imaginable, but it just so happens he’s paired up with someone who’s a hairpin away from histrionic rage at all times. OH MY FUCKING GOD I’VE BEEN SPENDING 24 HOURS A DAY WITH YOU FOR THE BETTER PART OF A WEEK WITH FULL AWARENESS OF THE NATURE OF YOUR DISEASE AND ITS RESULTANT BEHAVIORS BUT YOU JUST SAID SOME THING ABOUT HAVING TO BUY YOUR UNDERWEAR AT KMART and this is so BLASTED IRKSOME TO ME THAT I HAVE TO STOP THE CAR ON THE FUCKING HIGHWAY AND WAVE MY LITTLE T-REX ARMS AROUND AND ACT REALLY PUT OUT ABOUT IT and generally whine like a baby for two hours cause the moviegoing public definitely wants/needs to witness that and the unintentional revelation that the autistic savant in the passenger seat is more of an adult than his freakishly irrational brother.
This is a small movie ostensibly, about a family and its problems, and a road trip. But the excess of it all, the false glitter and florescent glare of the late ’80s hangs over everything like a mist. That’s the excess of cars and casinos and “chicks” and the slick showboating on display of a man’s pseudo high-rollin’ existence. But also the excess of plotting your entire film around a supposedly sympathetic portrayal of autism but still climaxing with the two brothers resting their heads together in a show of true bullshit familial love. There are good things about Hoffman’s portrayal, because he’s good in nearly everything, but the only ring of truth he really gives is the telling moment when he answers affirmatively to two opposite and incompatible questions — the only moment in the movie that I recognized as saying something felt and tragi. The rest is just a fucking commercial for how damn glorious it is to be rich, white and self-absorbed. Much as I bitch about Robert Zemeckis, the drop from Used Cars to Forrest Gump is likely less egregious and humiliating than the drop from Diner to this.