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Release Year: 1988
Director: Barry Levinson
Writers: Barry Morrow, Ronald Bass
You might think a movie called Rain Man would be about the weather. Or a depressed dude.
Or a depressed weatherman?
Nope. This 1988 flick stars Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman as brothers, who, after spending basically their entire lives apart, have been reunited.
Sound touchy feely? Well, not really… at least at first. Charlie, Cruise's character, is a slick L.A. car salesman with some pretty serious financial problems, so he uses his reunion with his autistic brother, Raymond (Hoffman), to try to negotiate for a bigger chunk of his father's inheritance.
He basically takes advantages of Raymond's situation, kidnapping him (yes, he kidnaps his autistic brother) and holding him for ransom to try to convince the trustee of Raymond's money to give up a chunk of their father's fortune—which all went to Raymond at the time of daddy's death—to Charlie.
So, this ain't exactly a story of brotherly love at the beginning—but don't worry, Ray helps Charlie out of his selfish, scheming ways eventually. Of course, the ride is still pretty dang dark at points.
As you'd probably picked up on, this film was more serious-adult, family-drama fare than blockbuster (and after all, its budget was only $25 million).
It was, however, a total critical and Oscar darling, nabbing a Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscar and one of those creepy golden statuettes for Hoffman as well. No, Tom Cruise didn't get any acting awards for this one, but it was definitely a key role that proved his serious acting chops.
Hey, if you like stories about kind of crummy people who learn how to be less crummy, then Charlie Babbitt's transformation via his connection with Raymond will totally be your jam.
But Rain Man is more than just a tear-jerker: it's a snapshot of a particular moment in time: specifically the neon, weird-haired, leg-warmer'ed landscape of strange that we know as the 1980s. Aside from some of the magnificent '80s cars, technology, and tunes, you just get to see a very peculiar species in his natural habitat.
The species? The yuppie. His habitat? The 1980s.
Rain Man begins with a shot of a luxury car being imported across a smoggy L.A. sky, and we soon learn that Charlie's money problems all stem from the fact that he's made his business selling Lamborghinis—Lamborghinis he can't get to their owners because the EPA is giving him a hard time about the cars' emissions standards.
Don't get us wrong—the film is hardly an environmentalist parable (though if they'd gone that direction, they could have just called it Acid Rain Man, hey-o!). Instead, it's a pretty cutting look at the phenomenon of the American yuppie: the "young, upwardly-mobile professional" that was a mainstay of 1980s culture before it became a parody of itself.
Why should we care about yuppies and yuppisim? First of all: they were everywhere in the 1980s: these were guys and gals who left behind the warm fuzzy idealism of the 1960s and 1970s and turned their eyes to cold, hard cash. Think Gordon Gekko. Think Patrick Bateman. Think Edward Norton's character in Fight Club before he Tyler Dirden-izes.
Yup(pie): these types were all over the map, and have been immortalized in culture as characters we still know and love… or love to hate. And Rain Man gives you not on an insider's look into yuppism, but the rare humanizing look at what made the yuppie so yuppi-riffic.
Rain Man is also important for a more problematic reason: the way it depicts autism. Before we had characters like Max Braverman from the show Parenthood, and before the HBO movie Temple Grandin brought Temple Grandin's brilliant mind into the public's awareness, a lot of people knew (or thought they knew) about autism simply from Rain Man.
But Rain Man isn't actually an accurate portrayal of the vast majority of the people on the autism spectrum.
In fact, the primary inspiration for Raymond's character, Kim Peek, was not actually autistic.
But, even to this day, people think that Raymond = autism. So Rain Man isn't just a heartwarming bromance (as in actual brotherly love), nor is it a peek into the lives of the American yuppie. It's a film responsible for the way many people understand autism. And that's a huge deal.
Babbitt was partially based on real-life savant Kim Peek, who passed away in 2009. Barry Morrow became fascinated by Peek upon meeting him, which is why he decided to make a movie about him. (Source)
When Dustin Hoffman met Kim Peek, they reportedly rubbed noses upon parting, and Hoffman said, "I may be the star, but you are the heavens." It's unclear whether the story is true, though. (Source)
Hoffman's portrayal was also based on a man named Peter Guthrie, who (unlike Peek) was actually on the autism spectrum. (Source)
When Rain Man was shown on plane flights, they dropped the scene in the airport where Raymond lists all the planes that crashed. It's a big omission because it basically explains why they have to drive to LA instead of flying, but airlines, uh, don't like talking about plane crashes when everyone is mid-air (who knew?). The only airline which showed the scene intact? Qantas, which, according to Raymond, "never crashed." (Source)
Realistic Portrayal of Autism?
These folks give Hoffman kudos for his portrayal and for raising awareness of autism.
However, some folks think the film's presentation of autism was pretty off and even detrimental to understanding what high-functioning autism actually looks like.
Point/Counterpoint Pt. 2
Apparently the debate about the movie's depiction of autism is so heated that one British website put up an actual point-by-point "debate" about it.
Film Critics Go Medical
Film critic Leslie Felperin, whose son was diagnosed with autism, does an overview of Rain Man's strengths and weaknesses, along with several other films about the spectrum.
And back in 1988…
Check out what film critic Roger Ebert thought about the film when it first came out.
"The Real Rain Man"
Want to learn more about the real man behind the fiction? Check out this 43-minute documentary about Kim Peek.
Listen to a radio interview with Rain Man screenwriter Barry Morrow.
Peek at Kim Peek
Here's the guy credited with giving Barry Morrow the idea to write Rain Man.
Kim Peek, his father Fran, and Dustin Hoffman (wearing a Kim Peek t-shirt??)
…And here's a picture of Kim Peek and Dustin Hoffman together.