Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is a hotshot car dealer who receives news that his father has died on the same weekend he was planning a little getaway with his girlfriend. Charlie and his father had been estranged for many years, staying entirely out of contact with each other, but Charlie feels compelled to at least attend the funeral, albeit briefly and almost from the front seat of his car. His main concern is the reading of the will, to see if his old man had cut him out or not. He's right in his suspicions, and Charlie discovers that what would have been his $3 million inheritance is instead trusted to one Dr. Bruner, tenant of a mental hospital. When Charlie goes to investigate, he's more than a little surprised to find that Dr. Bruner has been taking care of his brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), from whom Charlie had been separated in infancy and forgotten even existed. Raymond is autistic, one of the reasons the money was left to him, because he is so self absorbed in his own world that communicating with him is nigh impossible, and trying to come between him and his inheritance could prove hazardous.
This doesn’t sit well with Charlie, so he abducts Raymond under the guise of taking him to a baseball game in LA, but really intends finding a way to get Raymond to part with half of the $3 million. However, Charlie finds that taking Raymond out of the hospital is perilous. Full of muttering statistics, Raymond refuses to fly anywhere, meaning that Charlie has to drive from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. Thus they set off on a road trip that dominates a large part of the movie, and where both lead actors get a chance to shine.
Dustin Hoffman's detailed portrayal of an autistic man who has a staggering genius but is unable to relate any of it to the world has long been the benchmark for these types of performances, and despite many actors who have imitated or copied his approach, he still sets the standard. Never once do you feel he is aping for the camera, or get the impression that he's overplaying the part. Seeing this movie for the first time in a few years made me appreciate his dedication even more, at a time when playing a mentally handicapped person wasn't the easy ticket to an Oscar (yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Sean Penn.)
Tom Cruise was at the height of his 80's sex symbol status when he did this surprisingly dramatic turn, a far cry from his hot-shot bad ass in movies like Top Gun and Risky Business. While it's not too difficult to see Cruise as a talented dramatic actor nowadays, in 1988 this was a bit of a gamble, because the film doesn't make you like Charlie very much, at least not at first. He's selfish, spoiled and a general asshole to almost everybody. Cruise rises to the challenge, though, and his character has the most noticeable arc in the movie. While on the road with Raymond, he first ignores him and is frustrated with Raymond's every action. Eventually, though, he starts to develop a brotherly bond with Raymond. While Hoffman steals many scenes, Cruise gives him a performance to play off, enhancing our appreciation of what Hoffman's doing even more. It is because of this that Cruise's performance has largely gone unloved, but without it Hoffman wouldn't have come off as well as he did.
As mentioned before, the lessons Rain Man teaches about how yuppies act and treat other people are, in retrospect, better suited to a film like Wall Street. However, for two shining examples of two of modern cinema's most talented actors, this one can truly be deemed a classic.
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