The movie presents Raymond's talents with counting and calculation as falling into the (erroneous) statement of "stuff people with autism can do"—but it stands for so much more, really.
The fact that Raymond has a talent seems to spark Charlie's general realization that Ray is a human being, with awesome qualities as well as faults. Sure, the film attributes the talent to Raymond's autism… but nonetheless, it's an important moment in that Raymond's super duper math skills show Charlie that Ray comes with more than liabilities, which opens him up to seeing Raymond as more of a brother than a bargaining chip.
It's also worth noting that Charlie—the failed car salesman—is shown as being absolutely not good at numbers. You don't rack up debt if you're a savvy salesman, and this is compounded by the fact that Charlie's business failure is because he didn't have the math skills to understand emissions regulations. Sure, there was a bit of bad luck in there as well, but the emphasis on Raymond's mathematical genius underlines the fact that Charlie lacks the talent Raymond has.
In terms of big-picture symbolism, we can also read this as a little snarky commentary on the life of the American yuppie. Charlie—a yuppie personified—should be good at numbers. After all, yuppies were all about accumulating wealth, wealth, and more wealth. There's a definite math to the process of getting stinkin' rich.
But Charlie, as we've mentioned, fails on the math front. Could this be a little social commentary on the fate of yuppism as a whole? You be the judge.
The first shot of the movie is a car being cabled across a smoggy sky, and we soon learn that cars are super important to the Babbitt family—and really, the whole plot. (And the American dream, but we'll get to that.)
Charlie Babbitt is trying to make a killing selling Lamborghinis, but the EPA forbids him to turn them over to customers because they don't meet emissions standards. That whole situation creates some serious money problems for Charlie, and that's part of the reason he's so desperate for a piece of his dad's inheritance—and why he basically kidnaps his long-lost brother and holds him for ransom.
We also find out that Charlie has been totally into cars since he was a kid—in fact, a car was the reason he and his dad had a big falling out. His dad owned a car that Charlie really wanted to drive, and one day, he took it out for a spin without permission because he thought he had earned the privilege.
His father didn't agree, and when the police picked up Charlie, Father Babbitt wasn't super inclined to help Charlie out of the mess. Their relationship never recovered from the incident, and when Charlie's father died, he left Charlie the car… but basically nothing else. So, that car is a symbol of all the family angst and the breach between father and son.
Of course, we have to note that Raymond, too, was into cars—and unlike Charlie, Ray was allowed to drive that car all he wanted, apparently (at least, under tight supervision). Raymond is forever telling people "I'm an excellent driver"… and while that's not exactly true, Charlie (like his dad before him) finally lets Ray drive around a little bit to make him happy. So, it seems like Ray sees the permission to drive as an important sign of autonomy, kind of like Charlie did when he was a teenager.
Bottom line: Cars kind of become symbolically attached to the ideas of freedom and family in the movie, it seems.
But we would be remiss in our duties as symbol finders extraordinaire if we failed to mention the underlining motif of cars in a movie that's equal parts a) a roadtrip movie and b) a movie about American capitalism.
It's a car, guys. Arguably the most American of American symbols (besides all those eagles, baseball, and apple pies)… and completely, in a not-up-for-discussion way, the current reigning symbol of the American dream of freedom. But like a lot of movies that tackle the idea of the American dream of freedom, Rain Man uses the car-as-freedom as an ironic punch line. Because this roadtrip, in this coveted car, actually brings Charlie back to… the warm embrace of familial love.
And while that's a wonderful thing, it's also a very ensnaring thing. It's like the opposite of freedom, at least for a dude like Charlie. It's in his family car that Charlie awakes from his cold American dream and finds something much more real (and cozier).
Raymond is obsessed with the "Who's on First" bit from Abbott and Costello . It's kind of like his security blanket; he recites it when he's feeling nervous or tweaky. The thing is, he doesn't understand it's a joke—that the question "Who's on first?" isn't really a question at all (since there's a dude named "Hu/Who" who is, in fact, on first).
Charlie remarks that if Raymond could just understand the joke, he might "get better." Of course, that's not really the way autism works, but he's right that if Raymond were able to get the nuance of that joke, that would mean his awareness of social cues/humor had gotten a lot better…
So, in short, that bit really becomes a big fat symbol of the struggles Raymond has in operating in the world, particularly in terms of understanding people and interacting socially, and of his/Charlie's efforts to overcome them.
At the end of the film, when Ray is about to get on the train to go back to Wallbrook, you can tell that he's come a long way when he's able to tell Charlie that the skit is "Very funny."
You don't get any real sense of whether he truly "gets" the humor there, but at least he knows it's supposed to be funny—and that's clearly a huge step from using that endless series of questions—questions with no answer!— as a security blanket.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
We first meet Charlie Babbitt when he's in full on "poor little rich boy" mode. He comes from money, but he doesn't seem to have very much currently—and he's trying to change that fact by peddling Lamborghinis.
However, because the EPA has just a wee problem with the emissions coming from his pricey muscle cars, he's having trouble getting them to his buyers. So, Charlie is pretty wound up and money obsessed during the film's early moments, that's for sure.
Things take a turn when Charlie gets word that his father has died, and (even though he hasn't talked to his dad in a really long time) he has to hit the road to Cincinnati to attend the funeral… and collect his inheritance, of course (with his fetching partner/girlfriend in tow).
When he gets there, though, he gets a pretty big surprise: he's been largely cut out of his dad's will. Aside from a few rose bushes and a car, his father's money has gone to an unnamed trustee. His father has left Charlie a letter that gives us some insight into their estrangement.
Instead of taking his father's final letter to him to heart and really doing some soul searching about the choices and attitudes that led to a lifelong feud/chill with his dad (over his use of the family car—yes, really), Charlie goes on a quest for this mysterious trustee who's taken his inheritance, and so shies away from the kind of spiritual overhaul he so desperately needs.
Charlie's investigations bring him to Wallbrook Hospital, a place where adults who can't care for themselves (for a variety of reasons) receive care and monitoring. Charlie finds out that his father's money went to a doctor there and is being held in trust for a brother he never knew he had.
Charlie is totally shocked, but instead of focusing on embracing his new brother, he decides to basically kidnap and hold him for ransom until he gets what he thinks he's owed from his father's estate. Little does he know, of course, that a relationship with his long-lost brother can give him something much more valuable than money… but right now, he's still just a selfish money-obsessed jerk.
Of course, what Charlie doesn't foresee is just how much he's going to have to do to accommodate Raymond's needs, habits, and desires. You see, Ray's autistic, and disruptions to his routine don't really sit all that well with him; he requires a certain amount of sensitivity that Charlie doesn't really have.
Charlie tries to bulldoze over Raymond, insisting that Ray come back with him to L.A. to have a custody hearing (as part of his quest to get his hands on some/all of the money his dad left to Raymond), but Raymond ultimately just flat out refuses to get on a plane, since he's terrified of crashing (and is really well-informed about crash statistics). So, Charlie and Raymond end up on a long road trip from Cincinnati to L.A.
The brotherly road trip encounters quite a few hurdles. Despite the fact that Charlie is trying to rush back to L.A., for example, Raymond won't leave the house when it's raining—so, if it's wet outside, they can't travel.
Also, Raymond gets scared when he sees an accident on the interstate and refuses to travel via highway after that, which slows them down further.
While they're on the road, Charlie finally learns why his father kept Raymond away from him. It seems that Raymond had some kind of accident involving Charlie and the bath, and so Raymond was sent away for Charlie's safety.
Also, it turns out that Charlie's memories of an imaginary friend and protector named "Rain Man" were actually about Raymond. So, in this realization, Charlie basically butts up against a painful family secret that made everyone in the family unhappy in some way, shape, or form. This confrontation with his family's ugly/sad past is a big turning point for Charlie, since it opens him up to Raymond really being in his life as something other than a pawn.
You know, like, as a brother.
Of course, now that he actually cares about his brother, he has less greedy reasons for wanting to keep him in his life—and that's going to be difficult, since he's not really familiar with or prepared to deal with the challenges Raymond faces.
When they stop in a small town so Charlie can make a phone call, Raymond gets out of the car and ends up confused and scared in traffic. When Charlie takes him to the doctor to get an opinion of Raymond's capacity—in preparation for the hearing in L.A. regarding custody of Raymond—he learns a lot more about autism and Raymond's special abilities/challenges.
During the visit with the doctor, it finally sinks in for Charlie that Raymond is really smart at remembering things and counting/math. So, naturally, he decides they're going to Vegas so Raymond can put his skillz to good use by counting cards at the blackjack table. As predicted, Raymond is great at it, and they clean up—which means Charlie has some of that $$$ he needs to clean up his financial problems at home.
In addition to the financial "win," Raymond and Charlie get some real bonding moments on this trip—they even slow dance!
Susanna joins the boys in Vegas, and then the three of them head back to L.A. together. Raymond gets to drive for just a small stretch (like, the hotel driveway), since he's been insisting for the entire film that he's an excellent driver.
Once they're back in L.A., Charlie is dismayed when Raymond sets a fire while simply trying to make breakfast. Apparently life together isn't going to be any easier just because they've bonded, Charlie is starting to realize…
Raymond and Charlie go to the custody hearing, and after listening to Raymond's doctor and the judge weigh in on Raymond's particular case, Charlie is forced to accept the court's decision that he can't give his big brother the kind of care that he needs.
The fact that Charlie doesn't fight the decision really shows how much he's developed throughout the film, since he's now focused on what's better for Raymond rather than what he wants or needs.
Sure, he's sad that he's losing his brother just as he's getting to know him, but again, he seems to recognize that going back to Wallbrook is what's best for Ray. So, even while he's "losing" his brother, we realize that he's gained a whole new perspective on life and become a much better dude. Yay!
The film starts out based in sunny, smoggy L.A., but the death of Charlie's father takes him out to the Midwest pretty early in the movie… and then Ray's refusal to get on a plan turns the whole thing into a cross-country road trip.
So, Ray and Charlie truck on through a lot of different surroundings. No doubt because of Charlie's dire financial circumstances for most of the film, a lot of their travels involve dingy, roadside truck stops, diners, and motels. Actually, a decent portion of the film takes place in depressing little telephone booths where Charlie is trying to work out his business problems back in L.A.
However, once the boys get to Vegas and Ray's card counting talents win them some serious moolah, they end up in a luxury suite in a casino—a huge change from their digs for most of the film, and a pretty decent indicator that Charlie's financial luck is turning around.
There's nothing super earth-shattering going on with the storytelling in Rain Man… there's really only the one storyline about Charlie's growth from a selfish yuppie to a caring brother, and though the setting jumps around quite a bit, the narrative technique is rock steady and linear.
Nothing to see here, folks. Move along now.
The film deals with some heavy stuff—parental death, autism, and financial problems, for example—so it's probably a drama first and foremost. There's a lot of sadness and angst going on here, starting with Charlie's inability to sell his Lamborghinis and moving right into the death of his father, which then comes with the discovery of Charlie's long-lost brother. Dramatic enough for you? We think so.
That said, there are some laughs to be had here, too. For example, one of the most-remembered lines from the film is "Kmart sucks," because Charlie and Ray have an amusing conversation about the quality of Kmart's underwear selection. The convo ends with that quote from Charlie, which Ray then repeats to humorous effect later.
Finally, it's also just a straightforward family story that delves into father-son dynamics/wounds and Charlie's discovery of and growing relationship with his brother.
In an early conversation between Charlie and Susanna, we learn that Charlie had an imaginary friend named "Rain Man" who would comfort him when he was afraid as a child. Turns out, though, that "Rain Man" was real—that was just Charlie's childhood way of referring to his older brother Raymond (who he didn't remember until meeting Ray as an adult).
It's a bittersweet ending: Ray and Charlie end up separated, once Charlie realizes that sending Ray back into Dr. Bruner's care is the right thing to do for Ray.
He's disappointed, since they were just starting to bond, but at least it's a nice show of how much he's changed—for the better—that he is willing to give up what he wants to do what's right for his brother.
Yeah, there's a little bit of sex and lots of salty language (including the use of the "R" word), but there's not much violence, beyond Charlie being rough with Ray (and Ray hitting himself).
It's a mild R. It's a grown-up movie for sure, but that has more to do with the content and the complications than any sexy shenanigans or exploding heads.