Worst Best Picture: Is Rain Man Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1988 winner Rain Man. Is it better than Crash?

Rain Man is complicated.

Even if you haven’t seen it,  you’re no doubt aware of Dustin Hoffman’s character on a basic level. He plays Raymond “Rain Man” Babbitt, the autistic brother of Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt. It’s an iconic performance that locked up 1988’s Oscar in a way that few individual efforts before or since have.

Rain Man is terrific, but Hoffman’s performance is what really sticks with you when you watch it 25 years later. He sells the distress and the panic and the wonder of the condition so totally. It’s a full figure of a person just as much as “Rain Man” is a shorthand for the condition of autism itself. It’s a delicate topic — many Oscar-winners are about delicate topics, but few are about something like mental illness — and it’s handled in a way that holds up a quarter century later. This is an accomplishment all by itself, and it struck me as similar to the high points of the much-earlier Gentleman’s Agreement‘s handling of race.

In Rain Man, Tom Cruise’s character is forced to reunite with a brother he doesn’t know he has. It combines the classic “road movie” tropes with the “long-lost person” ones as Cruise drives Dustin Hoffman across the country to LA. Along the way he learns a little bit about autism and even more about himself. That sentence feels sappy and reductive, but it’s the high school book report summation of the “feelings” in Rain Man.

Most of the supporting roles have suffered with the passing of time — it’s especially strange to see some scenes where people appear to have never acted in their life just delivering bland line readings — but Cruise and Hoffman play the two sides of human experience so perfectly. Cruise is an interesting choice for a villain here and honestly, a mostly-evil protagonist is an interesting choice overall. It works because there are so many sad pieces to connect in Rain Man. “Meet your brother and try to earn back the three million bucks from Dad’s will” is a pretty fantastical plot,  but “learn to live with your family and your place in it” is something much simpler to understand and believe.

The Best Part: The reverse arcs of Tom Cruise becoming less worldly and Dustin Hoffman becoming a bigger part of the outside world are excellent. It’s the exact kind of obvious development that feels terrible when it’s over-messaged. There aren’t moments where people look into the camera and explain the pain and the difficulty, so they feel less like plot points and more like actual, impactful parts of a life. I always think of the worst version of this: In Man on the Moon, Danny DeVito is forced to say “You’re insane… but you might also be brilliant.” Rain Man is never that insulting.

The Worst Part: Surprisingly, it’s the iconic casino scene. It may be the only one you’re sure to know if you haven’t seen it. Tom Cruise takes his brother to Vegas and exploits his autism to count cards at blackjack. The scene starts with them testing it out on the back of a car. As soon as Cruise is satisfied it will work, they loudly peel out with the cards fluttering in the wind and the dust. The next scene opens with a full montage of both of them getting suits and haircuts. It’s full 80s in the worst way, and it’s ridiculous out of time. It’s bonkers and it immediately dates what is otherwise a really powerful, timeless story. Seriously, watch it.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It is better. I’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s wrong with Crash as a Best Picture winner. Crash is an awkward, meandering few hours of cinema by itself, but it’s when you compare it to the great accomplishments of the artform that it really looks bad. Tom Cruise in Rain Man and Matt Dillon in Crash have similar character arcs. Both men have lives where they can choose to either become better parts of society or continue on in their own ways. Both choose a form of redemption after decidedly not choosing redemption, but Dillon comes off much worse. Rain Man is about bettering yourself for your family, Crash is about needing a miracle just to care about the world at all.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Oscars.org

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