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Fast-talking L.A. car wheeler-dealer Charlie Babbit (Tom Cruise) has been estranged from his father for years but when he travels to Cincinnati for the old man’s funeral he is disappointed when all he inherits is a mint condition 1949 Buick convertible, a pocket watch and some prize roses. He is incensed to learn that his father’s $3 million fortune has gone to Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), the autistic older brother that Charlie had long forgotten. In a scheme to get his hands on the loot, Charlie abducts Raymond, who had been confined to an institution, and sets off for Los Angeles where he intends to have himself declared as Raymond’s legal guardian. He discovers, however, that his brother isn’t nearly as helpless as he seems.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Oscar’s Best Film of 1988 probably wasn’t, but it had all the right ingredients, with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman starring and Diner’s Barry Levinson directing this well-meaning tale of a debt-ridden luxury car salesman who learns humility and compassion after trying to weasel his autistic brother-he-thought-he-never-had out of a $3 million inheritance. Written, at first, as a vehicle for Dennis and Randy Quaid, this is a story of growth: about how a self-centred hotshot can be transformed into a loving and caring human being in a little more than two hours of fine, manipulative film-making. Hoffman’s Raymond (Jack Nicholson turned it down) is a high-level idiot savant who can’t look after himself but is a whiz with numbers. He estimates exactly that a total of 246 toothpicks have spilled onto a floor and in a few hours memorizes the Cincinnati phone book to the letter “G” (apparently, a real life phenomenon). 

With his tiny mincing steps and head tilted to one side, this buttoned-up little man is not unlike Ratso, the wheezing pimp that Hoffman famously portrayed in Midnight Cowboy (1969). Loud noises cause him to cringe and he has a fixation for the famous Abbott & Costello “Who’s On First” baseball routine, which he repeats over and over. Raymond can recite the crash statistics of all the world’s major airlines and so he refuses to board a plane to Los Angeles with the repeatedly frustrated Charlie insisting that only (our own) Qantas has an unblemished safety record. 

Qantas, of course, was the only carrier not to cut this scene from future in-flight screenings of the film. And so these unlikely brothers, who are as different as chalk and chain, begin their road odyssey across America in their dead father’s vintage Buick. They are a captive couple who bicker and blue for most of the way about everything from maple syrup to boxer shorts. Poor Raymond reveals a mess of anxieties to the mortified Charlie. He hates to be touched; loud noises make him cringe and because he won’t go outside when it rains, they spend several days cooped up in a Midwestern motel. A buddy movie cross-bred with a road picture, Rain Man is basically a plotless two hand tour-de-force, that allows some nice scenes for Valeria Golino as Charlie’s Latin lover who is desperately keen for her man to make something nobler of himself. Three directors came and went before Levinson who appears briefly as Raymond’s shrink. 

Steven Spielberg (who wanted to include wacky chase scenes), Sydney Pollack and Martin Brest all left, exasperated over problems with the script. Even Warren Beatty tinkered, but still they didn’t get it right. With a chasm of 25 years between them, Hoffman and Cruise were a distinct mismatch, but it was Hoffman himself who righted some of the wrongs. He was originally sought for the role of Charlie but after being moved to tears meeting a blind, retarded savant, who has cerebral palsy but can play full concertos on the piano, he lobbied for Raymond instead…and recommended Bill Murray for Charlie before Cruise came on board. 

Hoffman turned Raymond from a retard into a savant and made the character more downbeat than the livewire that was first conceived. He fought for a new ending, improvising a final affectionate scene that makes a belated grab for the heart. Hoffman had always been Cruise’s favourites actor. The younger man confessed that when he and pals Sean Penn and Tim Hutton were struggling talents, they once prowled onto the Hoffman estate hoping to catch a glimpse or a word with their idol. Cruise does small wonders as the straight man. A materialist who needs to learn that some things are immaterial, he is cagey but still charismatic while Hoffman gives a polished and exacting display of studied artificiality that earned him an Oscar. The problem is that both characters are so detached from the usual emotions that neither really manages to connect with the viewer. 

Despite eight nominations, the film that was almost cancelled three or four times, doesn’t quite work though the two stars work well surprisingly together. Still, the Academy liked it and so did Princess Diana. It was her favourite film. 

Published March 4, 2004

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(US, 1988)

CAST: Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise.

DIRECTOR: Barry Levinson

SCRIPT: Ronald Bass, Barry Morrow

RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes

PRESENTATION: Widescreen 16:9



DVD RELEASE: February 5, 2004

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