I have a my disagreements with legendary film critic Pauline Kael, some of them fairly intense, but one thing I'll never fault her for: she could write a hell of a sentence. And there's no sentence of hers I co-sign more eagerly than the one that she used to start her review of Rain Man, the highest-grossing film of 1988 at the domestic box office, and winner of that year's Oscar for Best Picture: "Rain Man is Dustin Hoffman humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes." Everything is there: it's mean, it's dirty & therefore funny & memorable, and it neatly inverts the usual conversation around this kind of film, the kind that's sort of bland and forgettable except that it has one barnburner of a performance that makes everybody talk about it like it's good (these films get nominated for Best Picture all the time; Rain Man is one of the few that actually won). In the case of Rain Man, Hoffman's showy performance, made up almost entirely of lines that, because of his clipped, atonal line delivery immediately entered the pop culture lexicon - "I'm a good driver"; "Definitely"; "[X] minutes to Wapner"; "Hot water burn baby" - look, I don't like the lines, people in 1988 did - was front-and-center in the critical praise, the conversation surrounding the film, and the audience love that led to the astonishing box office. Really, the box office is just mind-blowing: this made $172 million at the domestic box office and $412 million worldwide, in 1988 dollars. Release this exact kind of story today, I can't imagine it making half that much in today dollars. It is, to me, the single most inexplicable box-office run of the 1980s

But anyway, I was saying, Rain Man is Hoffman's performance, in a lot of ways. And the performance is... not good. It is a cartoon. Kael's one note is incorrect only if we want to permit it to have two: the clipped, short pronunciation of words, and the inflexible body language, which finds Hoffman waddling woodenly and stiffly, shifting only when he has to dart his hands up to the side of his head during one of the character's overstimulated freak-outs. He does, to be altogether fair, sometimes shift his line deliveries to slightly emphasise punchlines, but this feels much more like the actor helping to keep the script going, rather than telling us something about the character. The whole thing is garish and superficial, a simple set of infinitely repeatable tricks that are focused purely on the most superficial behaviors that he supposes to be associated with autism (even allowing that autism was understood less in 1988 than it is in 2020, I am fairly confident that it was understood better than this). It is, maybe, the performance that the script requires - hence I say "not good" rather than "bad", for "bad" implies that it's doing some damage to the film - but it's not impressive, it's barely persuasive. I am at all points during the film watching Dustin Hoffman do acting exercises. I am never watching Raymond Babbitt, and so I never learn about him.

The thing about Rain Man is that, despite Hoffman's omnipresence in the 1988-'89 awards season, is that it's not his film, and he's not the lead. He's the conduit by which the lead undergoes his own arc - a prop, I might say, if I wanted to be exactly as generous to the film's treatment of Raymond as I believe it deserves. The lead, in this case, is Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) a yuppie asshole who's gotten in over his head trying to import Lamborghinis for sale to other, richer yuppie assholes. He has a girlfriend, Susanna (Valeria Golino), that he treats like an object, and a father that he hasn't spoken to in years. And now he never will, since his father is dead. Eager to receive his inheritance, which will help to pay off his debts, Charlie is stunned to find instead that he's been given a deliberately insulting pittance, while the rest of his dad's estate has been placed in trust, for the benefit of the older brother Charlie never knew he had - Raymond, a deeply autistic man living in a facility in Cincinnati. Undaunted, Charlie kidnaps Raymond, sort of (legally, he's in the clear), and thus begins a six-day road trip back to Los Angeles, where Charlie hopes to shake the money out of Raymond, save his business, and screw it to his dead dad. Six days, of course, is just about exactly as much time as director Barry Levinson and screenwriters Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow need to have Charlie's heart grow three sizes, both toward Raymond and the rest of the world as well.

It's one of the key films in Cruise's self-conscious development towards becoming a Real Actor, falling between 1986's The Color of Money and 1989's Born on the Fourth of July. He had to fight for the role, which was written for a much older man, and it's probably just as well that he won that fight: the arc of the film requires somebody who seems like an over-privileged, smug asshole at the start, somebody we find appealing enough that spending two hours with him sounds like an acceptable prospect, but also somebody who contains no positive characteristics. Cruise, in '88, was an outstanding choice to embody all of that. And he does good work; I haven't seen every one of the ten movie performances he gave prior to this, but it's certainly better than any of the ones I have seen, confident in his ability to hold focus against the shticky showboating going on next to him without having to fight Hoffman for scenes (a fight he would immediately lose, of course), and willing to trust that the film's arc will make the audience love him by the end, without doing anything to beg for that love in the beginning.

It's not a great performance, but it's a more than capable movie star turn, enough to make me feel like Rain Man lets Cruise down more than the other way around. Because that ostensible arc is just not there in the screenplay: Charlie's a dick, he's a dick some more, he's a HUGE dick when they get to Las Vegas and decides to make Raymond cheat at blackjack on his behalf, and then he's kind and good. There's not really anything covering that transition other than the Vegas sequence itself, one of only two places in the movie where Levinson puts more than the most straightforward amount of effort into making it look like something; he and the very fine cinematographer John Seale are mostly content to coast by on well-lit naturalism, but in Vegas they start to play around with stronger colors, and editor Stu Linder starts to use some expressionistic cutting to make it feel a bit subjective, and it actually wakes up for a bit.

(The other place, by the way, is a late sequence when Raymond panics at hearing a smoke alarm, and Levinson and Seale break out the hand-held camera for a bunch of chaotic close-ups - the one and only part of the whole movie that seems to realise that Raymond might actually have an inner life).

This is also the place where, after she storms off in a huff, Susanna returns, not really for any reason; this is also, I think, how the film tries to cheat the Charlie arc. Plainly, for dozens of millions of dollars' worth of viewers and the awards votes who gave this four Oscars (from eight nominations), that cheat worked out fine; for me it didn't now and didn't the only other time I've slogged through the film. It just posits that Charlie is nice now, and since Cruise plays it that way, there's nothing to do but go along with it, or bounce off the film completely. I mean, I had already bounced off the film, in my annoyance with Hoffman's performance, but the point remains the same.

Working well enough to make the audience buy in to a plot development that isn't there is basically the energy Rain Man wants to work at. Given the topic, it might not be obvious, but this is pretty light and breezy, a crowd-pleaser that isn't a comedy but has the bubblineness of one. I feel like this was an extremely common mode of filmmaking in the '80s and maybe into the '90s, and Rain Man is merely the most visible example of the form thanks to that Best Picture Oscar; even its closest comparison point, 1994's fellow Best Picture-winning cross-country adventure about a neuro-atypical man, Forrest Gump, has those war scenes, and the omnipresent threat of imbalance and violence to keep it from being so loose and playful. Rain Man is ultimately just a nice hang-out buddy movie, one that I think doesn't work for a number of reasons. 133 minutes is indecently long for such a thing, to begin with, and Hoffman's performance too shrill. It also has an insane, almost unimaginably ill-judged score by Hans Zimmer, who has for some reason decided that this story about two brothers road-tripping from Cincinnati to Los Angeles needed a god-damned world music score, one obviously haunted by the ghost of Paul Simon's Graceland, and making the whole thing feel weirdly and ineffectively exoticised. Still, I get the idea of why the film might have worked, if only it was good.