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This movie won Oscars for Best Picture; Director (Barry Levinson); Actor (Dustin Hoffman); and Original Screenplay.

‘Rain Man’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 16, 1988

As Raymond, the autistic savant in the new Barry Levinson film "Rain Man," Dustin Hoffman walks in tiny mincing steps with his head tilted to one side, as if he were listening to a radio broadcast meant for his ears only. When he speaks, the lines come out in tight, adenoidal clusters, without emotion or intonation. Without music. Without life. You look at him, zipped up in his windbreaker like a grade-schooler, repeating over and over Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First," and wonder what's in there -- who's in there. The world is not the same for Raymond as it is for the rest of us. That much, at least, is made clear by Hoffman's performance. Unfortunately, little else is.

It would be hard to find an odder couple than Hoffman and his costar, Tom Cruise, who plays Raymond's younger brother, Charlie. The two characters were separated in 1965 when, after the death of his mother, Raymond was sent by his father to an institution in Cincinnati. And there he has remained, a secret from the rest of his family, until his father dies, leaving him everything except a '49 Buick Roadmaster convertible and some prize rosebushes.

The car and flowers are left to Charlie, who quite naturally feels a little cheated. The movie is really Charlie's story, and that is its first mistake. Charlie is a high-rolling operator, and the film opens with images of the lustrous Italian cars -- Lamborghinis -- he has imported to deliver to his wealthy American buyers. Supposedly this is his big score, but the cars are held up in customs and Charlie is thrown into a panic. Desperate for cash, he decides to raise the dough by tracking down his brother and abducting him as leverage against the $3 million estate.

The budding relationship between the brothers as they wheel across the country in the Roadmaster is the crux of the drama here. And though it's Charlie's story, Raymond is the one who intrigues us. Compared with other autistic individuals, Raymond is considered high-functioning, which means that he is capable of speech and limited human contact. It also means that he's able to perform astounding mental feats, such as memorizing the phone book, determining, in a glance, the number of toothpicks spilled onto the floor, and calculating, in an instant, the square root of any number.

In shaping the character, Hoffman concentrates on the externals, on the darting, calculating eyes, the constipated repetition of key phrases, the walk, the head, the hand to the ear to protect himself from loud noises. That Raymond never makes eye contact with anyone, but instead aims his vision at a point about three inches in front of his face, is the cornerstone of the actor's strategy. But as it's pitched, the characterization doesn't make eye contact with the audience either. For Raymond -- and Hoffman too -- evasion is everything.

Still, as reclusive as Hoffman is here, he has built a streak of droll comedy into his characterization; he invites us to laugh at Raymond's antics. And, at times, there is some real fun in this. Trapped in the car together, the brothers argue, much like normal siblings, about which roads to take and when to stop. Levinson has directed the scenes between the two mismatched brothers to emphasize the counterpointing rhythms, and on a purely formal level they're amazingly dexterous exchanges -- like real-life equivalents of "Who's on First."

For the most part, Charlie has no choice but to be patient. (Otherwise, Raymond begins to keen and beat himself.) But after an argument over boxer shorts, he slams on the brakes and tells his older brother that he thinks his condition is an act, screaming, "I know you're in there somewhere."

Nowhere will you find a more direct statement of the movie's theme. (This is screenwriter Ronald Bass' scream as much as it is Charlie's.) Ostensibly, the picture shows us the coming together of brothers; it's about family and the bonds of blood. But it's also about personality -- about what it is that makes us who we are.

The brothers seem to have absolutely nothing in common -- or at least that's the premise we begin with. But as the movie progresses we're supposed to see how alike they are; how each in his own way draws away from intimate contact and retreats into a frightening world of his own. The scenes between Charlie and his levelheaded Italian girlfriend (Valeria Golino, whose naturalness saves the first section of the movie) show us how incommunicative he is, how unable to connect. In a later scene, she and Raymond slow-dance together in an elevator to the music from a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie, and we see the softness in the older brother that's missing in the younger one.

But "Rain Man" never really succeeds in making its points register with any authority. The picture's subject is fairly easy to state: It's about the transformation that comes over an angry, callous, soulless young man when he spends time with the brother he never knew he had. But stating why this transformation takes place is more difficult. Because Raymond never becomes accessible to us as a character, we're never sure just what Charlie is supposed to have learned from him. Or why the contact is so ennobling. The scenes that might have given us some sense of what Charlie sees in his brother are missing.

The actors work hard to establish a rapport, but it never comes off. On his own, Cruise gives a passable performance, but he can't supply the insight into Charlie that we need if we're to understand why he would be willing to give up the money and fight for custody of his brother.

It's Hoffman's failure, though, that sinks the picture. He is working here with his usual meticulousness, but there's no relaxation in his performance, no sense that he has ever merged with his subject, that he has found Raymond's center and is simply acting out of it. Watching him, you feel lost in a morass of mannerisms and surface business.

The movie would fail, I think, even if Hoffman succeeded. It's a feel-good movie in disguise, and in attempting to dry up the sentimentality that's inherent in the material, it seems to be trying to escape from itself. Also, Levinson has fashioned a handsome, emphatic style for the film, but it's impossible to determine what he meant it to convey. The richness of cinematographer John Seale's images seems designed merely to match the star caliber of the players -- it's off-puttingly slick.

What the picture needs is something more than a look -- it needs a way of seeing. Neither Levinson nor Hoffman was able to penetrate the mystery of their subject. At the end of the film Raymond makes a joke, and we're supposed to see what a revelation it is for him to laugh, for him to get the concept of a joke. But the joy of his progress doesn't register because Raymond is never for a moment real to us. We don't think Raymond made a joke; we think Dustin made a joke.

"Rain Man" contains some adult situations.

Copyright The Washington Post

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