Film Theory: Rain Man (1988)

Raymond and Charlie Babbitt
Raymond and Charlie Babbitt

The Long Road to Success

Jim Rohn said, "success is not so much what we have as it is what we are." This is where our story begins.

In the 1988 road film Rain Man we get an artistic and autistic look at the American Dream. We see the positive and negative effects it can have on each individual. Like I always say movies are a sign of the times and many movies from the 1980's logically had 'greed' as one of the main motifs. In addition there's always another reoccurring theme that I love from this time period and I must say is not done to well today. In this movie you will see a character believably evolve in front of your eyes. Maybe some people do change after all...

Lamborghini Countach from Rain Man (1988)
Lamborghini Countach from Rain Man (1988)

Set Your Flag On Fire!

The opening scene is very interesting. You have Tom Cruise in a slick grey suit, behind him is a squad of Lamborghinis or is it Lamborghini? The initial impression is that he is very successful. Suspiciously "Iko Iko" by The Belle Stars plays in background and your ears can't help but hear the lyrics, "I will set your flag on fire".

Why have such an emphasis on these foreign cars, and then the picture above. The Italia Lamborghini descends from a boat like a foreign immigrant touching planting feet on American soil for the first time. Do you see it?

Once we get to the next scene we realize that the vision of success we just saw was a mirage. Cruise's Charlie Babbitt is just another struggling American Businessman using parlor tricks to convince the truly successful to give him their money. Even worse is the fact that he is in debt.

As I alluded to earlier, movies are a reflection of our time. In 1988 credit had just become a tool for all Americans to not only live beyond their means, but for a few crafty individuals, the means to live beyond their dreams. Thinking this way would lead one to believe that the "flag on fire" lyrics were carefully placed for a reason. Here's my interpretation. Lamborghini is a foreign car and you have an all American guy like Charlie selling them. To have this big of a contrast this early in the film I smell a reoccurring theme.

Every story has a reoccurring theme, well the good ones do. This is how you can separate a crap story from a good one. A good story should be able to keep on subject. Some great stories have several themes, but there's always a main one. From the beginning we see Charlie working with expensive cars. It wouldn't make much of an impact on me if this scene was the end of the automobile fascination, but as you go on you realize that it's just the beginning.

What Do You Deserve?

Fast forward to a future scene and we find out that Charlie's father has died recently. He shows little emotion until visiting his father's home where he sees an old 1949 Buick Road Master convertible. As the garage door opens his face ensures you that this car has meaning.

Charlie who is accompanied by his beautiful girlfriend, Susanna, starts explaining to her how he was never allowed to drive that car. He tells her that his dad respected the car more than him. He goes on to talk about the time he stole the car and took it for a joyride at age 16. When she asks him why he did it, he replied, "because I deserved it".

He worked hard, received good grades in school, but when that wasn't enough for his father he decided to take what he felt he deserved. With his father now deceased Charlie claims the car for himself.

Once again notice how this guy is around the cool, sleek, chick magnet Lamborghinis on a daily basis, but he then gets excited for a big time Americana car like the Buick Road Master.

While listening to the terms of his father's will Charlie finds out that dear old dad left 3 million dollars to a beneficiary and all he was to get is some rose bushes. Ouch! This causes him to snap. "I definitely get the rose bushes though, definitely!" he says sarcastically. Many people didn't realize this line was so important in the film. Remember that word, "definitely". It's an important piece of dialogue.

After getting the rotten news from the trustee, Dr. Bruner (who is also one of Ray's doctors) Charlie comes outside to find a man sitting in 'his' new car. Once again focus is on the vehicle. Charlie asks the man, "you know this car" to which he replies, "definitely know this car". There goes that word again.

I will not speak of Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Raymond as I want the emphasis to be on the film itself. As confirmed by the Oscar win for this role, he obviously does a great job.

By the time the entire correspondence with Dr. Bruner is over we find out that Charlie's mother died when he was 2 and his father had an illegitimate autistic son making Raymond his older brother. Less interested in his new found sibling and more in the money, Charlie takes Ray on the road with him in a half-hearten attempt to get what he believes is half of the 3 million dollar inheritance. This is where the road trip begins...

It's All About The Money

About A Hundred Dollars

Raymond, Charlie and Susanna, hit the road, While riding in the car the director uses scenery to give us a look into the mind of Ray, who has the ability to just relax and take in the beauty around us. This is something we all take for granted at times.

Charlie's girlfriend realizes that he is just using Ray to get to the inheritance money. This causes her to leave the hotel room in the middle of the night. This also forces him to be in sole responsibility of an autistic man he has just met. In this scene I started to realize that gray is a dominate color in this film. Charlie's suits are gray, the towels around him in the bathroom are gray. Why gray? This will be clearer later.

While at the airport Charlie attempts to get them a flight to L.A. but is inconvenience by Ray's statistical information on commercial airline crashes. Because of this Ray is afraid to fly so they must drive instead. While on the road they encounter an accident on the highway which forces Ray to recall facts about highway accidents. Now Ray doesn't want to travel on that highway anymore. A frustrated Charlie takes a detour. Next it starts raining and once again one of Ray's afflictions come to head. He doesn't go outside in the rain.

At this point in the film I fell like there is a little confirmation on my American theme theory. The casualties of travel in the United States. This is intensified when the guys are at the doctor's office and a guy in the waiting room starts giving Ray a history lesson on how the country was developed. While the older woman listens neither Ray nor Charlie seem interested. Older generation in comparison to the new?

Inside the doctor's office the doctor is amazed at Ray's ability to calculate numbers. As Ray battles the calculator and wins Charlie sits their believing Ray to be genius based on the look of adulation on his face. But when the doctor goes a step further into his investigation things change.

The doctor asks Raymond, "if you buy something for a dollar and you bought something for 50 cents how much would you have left?" Raymond responds, "About 70...70 cents". He goes further and ask Ray, "how much does a candy bar cost?" in which Ray responds, "about a hundred dollars". Then he asks, "how much does one of those new compact cars cost?" To which Ray again responds, "a hundred dollars". Besides the fact that Charlie's demeanor has changed from optimistic to angry, I notice the American Dream theme again.

There is a famous speech given by Ronald Reagan (again circa 1980's) where he warns Americans about their reliance on credit and how it will come back to bite us in the ass one day. I think the metaphor here is that, most of us think we are so smart, but when it comes to budgeting our money correctly we are clueless. In addition we spend so much time chasing the fast life (Lamborghinis) and wealth that we get lost in the race and fail to realize how our desires are negatively affecting our mind state.

At the end of the visit the doctor asks Ray if he knows what 'autistic' means and if he thinks he's 'autistic', to which Ray replies, definitely not'. Think about this; Raymond reads all of these books, retains so much information, but the analytical part of his brain doesn't work at the same level. He has a problem deciding what's normal human behavior and what's not. Sound like any nation you know of?

Rain Man, Let's Play Some Cards

Who Can You Count On

A lot happens after the doctors visit.

While in a hotel bathroom Charlie finds out Raymond used to sing to him when he was a baby. The name 'Rain Man' actually came from Charlie as he was too young to correctly call his brother by his name 'Raymond'. This is where Charlie starts to really find a connection to his brother, but it's short lived due to a phone call he will receive soon.

Back on the road we get to see the world through Raymond's eyes again. We see a great American backdrop as the director focuses in on close ups of the heartland. Farms, automobiles, trains, electrical wires, bridges ans roadways. This is a homage to the American Industrial Revolution. No doubt about it. A lot of films in the 80's went through these type of scene transitions. This reminds you that you are capable of extraordinary feats that can help not only you but others as well. Oh the freedom and independent minds of the 1980's can not be overlooked here.

Next up the rising action hits a head, conveniently accompanied by a song with lyrics such as, "rising sun". While at a diner Charlie finds out that his business's money problems are getting worse. He needs money and he needs it now. Attempting to think Charlie notices that after annoyingly reading all of the songs on the table top Juke Box, Raymond can remember everything about them. Including the numbered order of each song. This is when Charlie decides to teach Raymond to count cards.

On the way to Vegas Ray listens to his favorite comedy routine. The one that he doesn't even understand, but loves to listen to. Why wouldn't he? This theme is about America and what's America's favorite pastime? Baseball. Who's on first?

A little piece of great writing and direction that I must point out here. It never occurred to me how much jewelry Charlie had until he goes to the pawn shop to cash them in for gambling money. If you go back and pay attention its right up in your face many times, but just like a magicians trick I was distracted by the story.

After the iconic shot of the two brothers in matching gray suits descending from the escalator, they make it to the tables. To make a long story short, they win a lot of money. After a slight scare from casino security they make it out alive.

Who is the star of Rain Man

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Three Minutes To Wapner

With Charlie realizing that he is not qualified to take care of Ray and that he has to face his own demons with his car business, they set out to meet up with Dr. Bruner. Oh Susanna returned and decided to give Charlie a second chance. Most likely this is due to the fact that she saw that evolution in his character that I eluded to earlier.

In one of the most heart warming scenes of this climax Charlie and Ray meet up with Bruner and another doctor. Hopefully you have seen the movie already, otherwise you have just been through a hell of a lot of spoilers. In accordance I will skip most of the meeting and get to the most important parts.

The scene ends with Charlie realizing that no matter how much he hopes that Ray will one day snap out of his affliction it will never happen. There is only so far hope and faith can take you. Raymond is doomed to repeat the same mundane lifestyle until the day he dies. Here's where my American Dream theory concludes.

In essence Raymond is 'Rural America' and Charlie is 'Urban America.

You see Raymond is like that farmer or factory worker in Ohio or Montana who is happy enough with what he has. The fact that he repeats the same mundane tasks everyday doesn't bother him. Remember life through the eyes of Raymond? Trees, farms, railroads, electrical towers. Seeing America keep running and being a part of the process is enough for them.

On the other hand you have Charlie. He's like that fast talking city boy who will spend his last dime trying to keep up with a certain status. He doesn't care if what he does is right or wrong. Money and status are the only ways they can prove to their parents (with Charlie his dad) or themselves that they are successful. In the midst of the charade they lose their humanity. This opens up a second theme I noticed.

Why is Raymond so obsessed with "Wapner"? That is Judge Wapner from The People's Court. An American staple of our judicial system where not only the judge, but the people watching decide what's wrong and what's right. Towards the end of the movie after Charlie made a connection with Ray he is offered a chance to walk away with $250k. He turns it down.

He doesn't want a hand out from his once powerful and wealthy father (the government). He realized that he was acting selfish before. He realized you don't always get what you think you deserve and sometimes you think you deserve more than you actually do.

Remember the gray suits? Western culture suggests that the color white is good and the color black is bad. Gray would fall in between. He was always in the middle of bad and good. He just had to make a decision, something Raymond was unable to do for himself, but was able to do for his little brother.

He's evolved. Charlie wants to make it on his own just like the factory workers in the rural towns he just visited. He has to solve the problems that he has created himself. This country was built on blood, sweat and tears. Unless you have some kind of physical or mental affliction like Raymond, no one should just sit back without making a contribution to it's upkeep.

As I said before this one of many possible themes, because this is a great film. Those kinds always have more than one.

The Rain Man

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