Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Classic Films: "Rain Man" (1988)

March 31, 2015


Two basic definitions of the term "savant" (according to i.word.com) include "a person who knows a lot about a particular subject," or "a person who does not have normal intelligence but who has very unusual mental abilities that other people do not have." Many individuals on the autism spectrum, according to Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D. (www.autism.com), "have extraordinary skills not exhibited by most persons," including but not limited to skills in math, art, music, and memory. A disadvantage, however, includes lack of social communication or expression towards others.

The 1988 movie Rain Man tells the story of two people who live in their own "worlds"--one with a condition that's been placed on him, the other with a condition (or rather, worldview) he's placed on himself. 

The three central characters are quite compelling. Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise, in one of his signature roles) is a self-centered wheeler-dealer who puts himself as his first priority over others. (And it's hard to have any sympathy for him at first.) Charlie learns that he has not only been left out of his recently-deceased father's inheritance, but that he also has an institutionalized autistic brother, Raymond, he never knew about.

Raymond (Dustin Hoffman, in an Oscar-winning performance) has lived at the institution known as Walbrook for half of his life. He demonstrates unique and significant memory skills when it comes to, for instance, reading phone books or calculating random mathematics (much to a doctor's and Charlie's amazement in one scene). He is also used to specific routines, such as watching "Judge Wapner" on T.V. every day and getting to bed by 11:00 p.m., and lacks the aforementioned social communication, save for some emotional outbursts when said routines are tampered with. As one aide puts it, "I don't think people are his first priority."

Susanna (Valeria Golino), Charlie's girlfriend and co-worker, is from a different part of the world, and is one of the only characters willing to understand (or try to understand) Charlie's life as well as Raymond's. "When I was a kid and I got scared, the 'Rain Man' would come and sing to me," says Charlie, referring to the childhood he had forgotten and grown out of.

Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman
Charlie eventually kidnaps his brother from Walbrook in an attempt to get his share of his father's inheritance. But soon, their road trip goes from an act of selfishness to a challenge and test for Charlie. It not only pushes him to his emotional limits, but pulls him back to life, and challenges him (and audiences) to consider what is best for one's well-being than for our own well-being.

In a small way, Charlie Babbitt is the prodigal son who learns to live again through his brother. As a young man, he left home and estranged himself from his father. But through his brother, he learns to communicate and live for something better. A turning point comes at a hotel one night when Charlie learns who the "Rain Man" was. It isn't directly mentioned (and one of my high school teachers explained this to me the first time I saw this film), but there was an incident where Raymond unintentionally hurt his baby brother (Charlie) while trying to give him a bath. Only when he realizes this does Charlie slowly but surely begin to have a different viewpoint from here on, and eventually acknowledges Raymond as the only "family" he has left. And it's this aspect--how we communicate and connect with other people--that makes Rain Man a unique, often funny, heartbreaking, and emotional experience.

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