The reputation of ‘Rain Man’ does not necessarily derive from its story. In truth, there is little plot to be found in Barry Morrow and Roland Bass’s screenplay about a selfish yuppie, Charlie, who discovers he has an autistic brother, Raymond, after his father’s death. ‘Rain Man’s prestige instead stems from its lead performance by Dustin Hoffman, an iconic Oscar-winning role that remains his best-known work, and to a lesser extent the fantastic supporting turn delivered by a young Tom Cruise.
The lack of narrative is by no means a criticism of ‘Rain Man’. The film is proof that you don’t necessarily need much plot to create cinema that moves or excites audiences. Sometimes all you need is two performances of the calibre that Cruise and Hoffman deliver. Their chemistry is the real story as Charlie slowly learns to appreciate Ray’s needs when they bond during a coast-to-coast road trip. ‘Rain Man’ is a film that is emotionally driven, not plot driven. Remarkably, the low-key nature of this character piece did not prevent ‘Rain Man’ from reaching a massive audience – a feat that seems impossible in the modern corporate movie culture of the 21st century. It was the highest grossing movie of 1988 making over $170 million.
‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ director Barry Levinson, one of the many other people who won an Oscar for ‘Rain Man’, understands better than anyone that Hoffman and Cruise are the film. His unobtrusive camera gives ‘Rain Man’s two leads the room they need to create the chemistry between their respective characters. It coaxes performances that are simply exceptional – never better than in the emotional climax of ‘Rain Man’ (pictured above), a nuanced yet heartbreaking moment in which Raymond overcomes his fear of physical contact, intimately resting his head against his brother.
‘Rain Man’ is 20th in our ranking of the best movies of 1988. You can find the full list in our 1988 Year In Review series.