Rain Man is one of those films that has suffered from its success. It’s easy to dismiss at it as a kitschy piece of 80s melodrama, yet another Tom Cruise vehicle in which he plays a man-child with father issues. Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant Raymond has been copied and mocked so many times that it may seem like a pop culture joke now. The movie cleaned up at the box-office and at the Oscars, so it doesn’t need any more lauding, right?
But watch it again. It’s Hollywood storytelling at its best. There is no doubt that Rain Man is a great film and it all began with the script by Ron Bass and Barry Morrow.
I’d seen the film three or four times in years past but I caught it on cable on a recent Sunday afternoon and, try as I might, I couldn’t get away from it. I couldn’t turn off the TV, I couldn’t focus on my laptop, I just couldn’t fold my laundry in the bedroom — I had to bring it out into the living room and fold it in front of the TV as I watched Barry Levinson’s masterpiece.
The story will suck you in and you won’t be able to give up on it until it’s done. This is Tom Cruise’s best performance; as Michael Caine once said about this role, “Cruise carries the film on his back.”
What initially stands out for me in the story is the clean throughline. Charlie Babbitt kidnaps his brother Raymond to use him as a bargaining chip to get the inheritance he feels he’s owed to save his flagging business. What a fantastic story engine — clear, conflict-laden and undeniably plot and character-driven.
But it’s Charlie’s arc that is the heart of the story. He’s incredibly selfish and absolutely awful to Raymond at the start of their relationship — over the course of the plot, he realizes his own role in Raymond’s past and he makes the final decision to sacrifice his own ego and finances to ensure Raymond’s future. Charlie’s monstrous sense of entitlement at the beginning of the film is revolting and his inner peace at the end is truly touching.
Then there’s the details. Spot emission standards on a Lamborghini. The stipulations of an estate trust. The mental challenges faced by an autistic savant. Vegas card counting. All of these details are convincing and motivated.
THE STORY MAP
The Rain Man Story Map will show you the structure of this classic screenplay. You will see how each signpost beat is a clear step in Charlie’s change from selfish manipulator to caring brother. With each beat, the conflict escalates, the stakes raise and the story advances on both the External and Internal lines.
Charlie’s money and Charlie’s soul: two active lines that take unexpected turns due to great writing.
You’ll notice I’ve split up Charlie’s Internal Goal with a hyphen: To satisfy his needs at all costs / To do what’s best for Raymond. The hyphen represents the changeover from False Goal to True Goal that occurs at the “Assumption of Power” beat at page/minute 75 of this film (but more often occurs at the Midpoint in other films, as seen in the As Good As It Gets Story Map). This is the stirring scene when Charlie realizes that his father put Raymond in the institution after Raymond burned him as a baby with hot water in the bathtub. Charlie has been shown through an active, visual device that he is partially responsible for his brother’s position in life. From this point, he will be pushed to decide if he is fit to be his brother’s keeper. This is essentially the crossroads of his manhood, setting up the synthesis of the External and Internal lines that will motivate the climax of the story.
Good Luck and Happy Writing!
Special thanks to Rob Rich of ScreenplayHowTo for his help with this Story Map.