It had been a long time since I'd watched "Rain Man." I saw it for the first time on TV when I was in fifth grade. I remember really enjoying it. I found the dynamic between Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman to be emotional and funny. It was before I knew anything about autism, and it was well before I knew who I was. Like many movies I enjoyed when I was a kid, I was a little scared to go back and watch it. Peers of mine have been calling me Rain Man on and off for years (which I'm not sure is a compliment). Portrayals of disability in the media have been a hot-button issue over the last several years, and I was a little bit worried that the film, while intended, may come across in the modern age as a little bit exploitative. But I watched it last night, and I'm happy to report that "Rain Man" not only holds up incredibly well, but it's an important film about autism that I think everyone should see at some point in their lives.
First off, the obvious thing to point to is that Dustin Hoffman's performance as Raymond is mesmerizing. This is one of the greatest performances ever put on film. There's not a single second where you don't completely buy him in this role. But even beyond that, the writing for his character is fantastic. They nailed every single little detail that comes with being on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. The routine, the memorization of certain numbers and statistics, and the inability to connect with people and make eye contact are prime examples of an actor portraying a character the way it was meant to be portrayed when written in the script.
I hate, fucking HATE when autism is portrayed as cute. I'm not violent, but I go to bed at night and fantasize about punting every single person who is responsible for a show like "The Big Bang Theory." "Oh boy, look at Sheldon Cooper. Isn't he so awkward and adorable?" Fuck off. If you're going to portray autism properly, I have no problem with you incorporating humor. Still, you have to make sure that you take into account the other end of the spectrum and that it has the ability to impact people's lives. It's not some cute disability that people assume they know something about simply because they have a cousin on the spectrum. It's a very nuanced and layered thing. For a film made in 1988, I think the film's portrayal of autism is remarkably ahead of its time.
There are negative elements to this movie. It is very much an 80s film. The music is a reflection of that. The orchestral score by Hans Zimmer is fine, but several 80s Pop songs included in the early part of this film don't quite fit. Tom Cruise's character is a cartoonish asshole. I understand he's meant to be unlikable, but he's unlikable in an almost inhuman way. His performance is excellent from beginning to end, but the writing for that character was over the top. He brings nuance to a character I don't feel was particularly nuanced on the written page.
In general, I think that this movie is pretty short on plot. It tends to meander, but its subject matter is so fascinating and well done that I feel like it's clichés are earned. I'll forgive many flaws if a movie is willing to show tremendous heart. "Rain Man" does that in spades.
This movie was a critical darling at the time of its release. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Dustin Hoffman won Best Actor. I rarely agree with the Oscars, but it's the role of the Academy to give Best Picture to the film that was most relevant for the era in which it was released. Autism existed well before this film, but I think that this movie opened things up to a greater discussion about this disability. It's filled with a lot of iconic imagery and funny moments, but at its core, it's about a brother coming to terms with what he's lost and also what he's gained in life. I recommend watching it. If for nothing else, it provides tremendous insight into its subject matter.