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by Barry Levinson (Director)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1988
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Dec 20th 2004

Rain Man

Rain Man was released in 1988, although it was in development for years.  The original script was by Barry Morrow, and a number of directors, actors and other writers were involved up to the stage of the movie actually being made.  It is a classic road trip story, with Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise) traveling across the country with his autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman).  Charlie transforms from a lying cheating young businessman to a feeling human being, through coming to understand his brother and make a connection.  Raymond also changes, in more subtle ways, through going through new experiences such as his first kiss and sensing his brother's concern for him.

The DVD has a short featurette on the making of the film, with clips of interviews with the main actors and producers.  For real fans though, there are three commentaries, by director Barry Levinson, and two of the main scriptwriters, Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass.  Morrow's commentary is the most emotional, because he had the original idea and he based the character of Raymond on people who he knew.  In particular, he formed a lifelong friendship with autistic savant Kim Peek.  Morrow gets choked up a couple of times when talking about his experiences, partly because he explains that when he won the Oscar for best screenplay, in his acceptance speech, he was intent on mentioning his sister who was dying of cancer.  He also talks about the effect that the film has had on the public perception of autism and how it changed people's attitudes, and clearly this meant a great deal to him. 

It is a surprise to learn in Ron Bass' commentary that in fact Morrow's original script, the Rain Man was a person with mental retardation rather than autism, and he was a far more loveable character.  Stephen Spielberg became involved in the project and recommended the change because it would make a much stronger story, since there would be far more to overcome in the relationship between Charlie and Raymond if Raymond was autistic.  Bass talks a great deal about the history of the development of the project, which is fascinating for those who like to learn about the machinations of Hollywood.  It also reveals something about how Hollywood thinks in creating movies about people with emotional and cognitive differences.  Morrow also talks about those issues: it is amazing that he was put under pressure to include an action sequence with a shoot-out in the middle of the story.  All three commentaries discuss the ending of the film.  There was some feeling that it needed to be a happy "feel good" ending in which Charlie and Raymond spend the rest of their lives together, but that seemed too unrealistic.  The actual end of the film, in which Charlie puts Raymond on a train to go back to his group home, is far more anticlimactic. In real life, often autistic people do live with their families, especially when they are as high functioning as Raymond, and one might complain that it Charlie shirks his responsibility in letting him go back to his home.  But as the film portrays the issue, Charlie is doing what is best for his brother, and in fact he is sacrificing his own preferences.

Barry Levinson's commentary is maybe the least revealing of the three, but he does discuss some of the decisions involved in putting the film together and some of the artistic process. 

Hoffman's performance remains strong sixteen years later, while Tom Cruise looks so young it is hard to take him very seriously.  The writers explain that the original idea was for Charlie to be about the same age as his brother, and to be even more bitter than Charlie was portrayed.  There was some discussion whether he could be played by Jack Nicholson or Bill Murray.  It is tempting to think that it would have been a much better movie if they had stayed true to the original idea, since Cruise's performance is rather wooden.  Nevertheless, Rain Man remains an important film for the portrayal of people with autism and our attitudes towards them.  As all three commentators point out, the real point of the film is how Charlie becomes a better person through his meeting his brother.  It is a strong work and bears repeated viewing. 

 

© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.




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