At one point in “Rain Man,” a famous Abbott and Costello bit takes center stage: “Who’s on first?” — a comedy sketch about two men speaking the same language, but not quite understanding each other.
The same analogy can be applied to the film’s two central characters: Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) and his older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman).
The brothers, although foils for each other, share more than a family name. They both possess a madness. Charlie has an obsession with money; his eyes gleam with jealousy when he learns that his father cut him out of his will. Raymond, on the other hand, is more conventionally mad — muttering the same refrains over and over to himself, banging his head on the wall and shrieking.
Written by Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass and directed by Barry Levinson, “Rain Man” (1988) mirrors the conventional storyline of “Beauty of the Beast.” It acknowledges the characters beastly attributes while humanizing them over the course of an hour and a half.
On the road to redemption is Charlie Babbitt, a monster of a businessman. He’s a fast talker who shouts rather than listens, often cutting corners and driving over curbs. As the film opens, we see him towering over us with Ray Ban aviators and Lamborghinis shielding him.
He’s the type of guy who would speed past Raymond and the Walbrook Institute without even looking back.
But when Charlie’s father dies and leaves a $3 million fortune to a mysterious benefactor, Charlie’s life slows down.
He discovers that he has an older brother named Raymond Babbitt — who is 15 years his senior and also the sole benefactor to his father’s fortune. They’re from different worlds.
Whereas Charlie dons tailor-made suits, Raymond prefers K-Mart. Whereas Charlie is handsome, Raymond looks average. Whereas Charlie’s life moves fast, Raymond’s is slow.
Raymond is a highly functional autistic savant, Dr. Bruner (Gerald Molen) explains. Someone who wouldn’t know the value of $3 million dollars. His life revolves around a carefully constructed routine: pancakes on Tuesdays, fish sticks on Wednesdays, 15 cheese balls as a bedtime snack, and every single episode of “Jeopardy,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “People’s Court” in between.
Hoffman, who won an Academy Award for best actor for his role, is extraordinary as Raymond. With his head tilted to the side and his eyes staring either up at the sky or down at the floor, Raymond resembles an alien creature whose undeniably human.
Take the scene when the brothers are first introduced. Hoffman launches into the Abbott and Costello sketch, parroting the lines to himself while pacing anxiously around the room like a caged animal. His hands twitches as he mutters to himself.
“It’s his way of dealing with you touching things,” his caretaker, Vern (Michael D. Roberts), explains.
Hoffman’s Raymond may look frightening when he’s throwing temper tantrums on strangers’ porches, but beneath his roars is a confused man-child — whose none the wiser for repeating “who.”
While “Rain Man” isn’t as funny as Abbott and Costello’s skit, it does what comedy often succeeds at: it forces us to take another look at the ugly truths in life. In doing so, we reach an understanding and start seeing life in another way.
Levinson’s film sheds insights on the frustrating realities of caring for an autistic individual, and in doing so, his triple play of double entendres gives you a warm feeling of home.
“Rain Man” was directed by Barry Levinson and written by Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass. The film won the 1989 Academy Award for best picture, best director and best original screenplay. Hoffman also won best actor for his role as Raymond Babbitt.