There’s a great Jonathan Demme movie waiting to bust out of Rain Man, as it shares more than a few obvious parallels to that director’s road-movie masterwork Something Wild. But the gap separating Demme and Rain Man director Barry Levinson is a chasm between artistic insight and hack pander-ism. Rain Man‘s cross-country odyssey—as shared by Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) and his autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman)—strains for the profound and complex sense of Americana that is Demme’s usual thematic obsession. But Levinson is a more isolated filmmaker—take the director out of his Baltimore hometown and he’s way out of his limited depths. This is apparent from the film’s opening, where Levinson bisects a smoggy Los Angeles background with a shiny red sports car, ironically scoring the scene to the Belle Stars’s “Iko Iko.” It’s the L.A. parallel to Something Wild‘s New York skyline montage, but it packs none of that sequence’s seething, dangerous wonder, settling instead for an obvious comment about materialism and an unexploited joke: introducing quintessentially American pretty boy Cruise as a hood-ornament reflection. The banality continues for two hours plus, but it’s surprisingly less torturous than one might fear. The best that can be said of Hoffman’s Oscar-lauded performance is that it’s consistent, an actor’s equivalent to watchable white noise. Cruise is, of course, the exact opposite, a Danny Zuko-like high school jock mistakenly cast in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, bugging his eyes and gesticulating with fervid abandon. Rain Man‘s own Abbott & Costello metaphor goes a long way toward explaining the casting intent, though it also adds a dimension to the pop-culture-laden humor that masks the film’s superficiality. At times Hoffman’s dialogue sounds catchphrase-ready; in retrospect, we can thank our lucky stars that “Uh-oh!” and “Four minutes to Wapner!” are only minor touchstones in the cultural lexicon. Yet props should be given to Hoffman for insisting on the relatively downbeat ending, which saves Rain Man from plunging into total offensiveness and marks its historical place as a dull Best Picture winner to put alongside Cavalcade and Gentleman’s Agreement.
- Barry Levinson
- Ronald Bass, Barry Morrow
- Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Valeria Golino, Gerald R. Molen, Jack Murdock, Michael D. Roberts, Ralph Seymour, Lucinda Jenny, Bonnie Hunt
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