Cinema: Two Out of Five Ain't Bad

A pair of romantic comedies works nicely, while a trio of ambitious dramas misfires

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The publicity pushes all the right buttons. "The unlimited potential of the human spirit" is evoked; the word heartwarming is bandied about. And indeed the film's plot profile is indistinguishable from that of a disease-of- the-month TV movie. But partly because director Barry Levinson (Good Morning, Vietnam) aspires to a more conscientious art, partly because he has chosen to examine one of the least tractable and most enigmatic forms of mental illness, Rain Man simply refuses to function sentimentally.

Cunning, cynical young Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) learns he has been cut out of his father's $3 million estate, which has gone to an older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), whom he did not know existed. Ray has long been institutionalized because he is an autistic savant. He has a genius for instant mathematical calculation, but he keeps reality and affection at bay by piling barricades of useless information around himself and by insisting, maddeningly, monotonously, monomaniacally, that certain routines, involving meals and TV viewing, be rigorously observed. Charlie abducts him, hoping to gain control of his inheritance, and they set off by car on a cross-country odyssey -- each in his way a manchild in an unpromising landscape.

The situation triggers certain expectations. Surely responsibility -- and the workings of the popular belief that mental illness can be a form of saintliness -- will make Charlie a better, more caring person. And perhaps, freed of institutional constraints, warmed by fraternal bonding, Raymond may get better, since that too is a convention of this kind of drama.

You win some, you lose some. Charlie does develop a guardedly expressed conscience. Though he exploits Ray's head for figures to make a killing in Las Vegas, he ends up believing his brother would be better off with him than in the asylum, and fighting, on principle, for custody. Yet Hoffman's meticulously observed performance makes it clear that Ray's is truly a hopeless case. Yes, he could become a kind of living pull toy for his brother, flapping and clacking in his wake. Yes, they could continue playing what they have played in this film: a comedy of frustration that has its bleakly funny moments. But a cure, restoration to full human function? That's not on.

This honest rejection of fraudulently uplifting sentiment is admirable in a way. But Rain Man's restraint is, finally, rather like Raymond's gabble. It discourages connections, keeping you out instead of drawing you in. -- Richard Schickel


Directed by Oliver Stone; Screenplay by Eric Bogosian and Oliver Stone

Good evening, agony fans. Time for another thrilling episode with Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian). For two hours a night, this talk-show host spits out opinions, croons insults, talks people off the suicide ledge of despondency, seduces and then abandons his listeners. Got a personal problem? Barry will mock it. Afraid of blacks, Jews, gays? Barry will make sure you're more afraid of him. Or maybe you just love him. Don't try: "Nothing more boring than people who love you." And when Barry is bored, he cuts off your lifeline -- hangs up on you. Remember, folks: "Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words cause permanent damage."

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