Before watching the movie:
Until just a few minutes ago, all I knew about this film was that Dustin Hoffman (too soon for another Hoffman? Nah.) plays an autistic man in a praiseworthy manner, and it’s about the relationship between him and his brother. I didn’t even realize until now that the brother was played by Tom Cruise. I was worried that the plot would be too much like Of Mice and Men for me, but it looks more like it’s about Cruise’s character being taught to be a better person and coming to love his brother.
After watching the movie:
Charlie Babbit is a fast-dealing grey market car dealer trying to save his company in the wake of harsh EPA restrictions, in a relationship with a coworker with as little emotional effort on his part as he can get away with. He learns that his estranged father has died and left him almost nothing, just the car that they separated over. The bulk of the 300 million dollar estate was willed to a trust for the older brother Charlie never knew he had, a high-functioning autistic savant named Raymond. Hurt and broke, Charlie abducts Raymond from the home and takes him on the road from the home in Cincinnati back to Las Vegas, essentially holding him for ransom over “his” half of the estate. But now he has to deal with all of Raymond’s eccentricities on top of his own familial and business frustrations.
At first, I didn’t have a whole lot to say about the acting. Cruise is a guarded man in a thick, impersonal shell who has a lot to be upset about. Hoffman is an autistic adult. On further reflection, Cruise definitely didn’t phone it in, but I can’t say a great deal about it. Hoffman, on the other hand, never breaks character. The audience never gets to see him leave the world inside his head for a moment. It’s the kind of performance that you don’t notice because there aren’t any flaws.
I only have in-depth experience with one autistic person, so I can’t speak to how well the spectrum altogether was portrayed, but I can say that it was seamless and consistent. My background also almost made me miss the fact that Charlie, and by extension the viewer, may be hit in the face by Raymond’s limitations, but has to find his strengths very slowly and difficultly. This film may have contributed to expectations of savant abilities in autistic persons, but from what I saw, it spent much more time dealing respectfully with the real day-to-day problems and coping mechanisms than on the glitzy Vegas gambling. It just comes down to what sticks in your mind.
One other note on a slightly different subject: I don’t see how Charlie’s coworker/”girlfriend” (I use the term loosely) would have ever wanted to be with him where he is in the start of the film. She’s constantly trying to pry some personal connection out of him, but I can’t imagine how they got to the place where she’d care. There’s a sequence in which Raymond walks in on Charlie and Susanna having sex, and in Charlie’s ensuing blowup she storms out, but I would have thought she was so close to that point that sex would be out of the question. Even if you take it as a sign of what the relationship is based on, I just find it completely unbelievable. That’s my biggest complaint.
In an interesting coincidence, as I sat down to write this review, I got forwarded an email from Easter Seals about a petition for more portrayals of autism and other disabilities with more realism and positivity. If you appreciated this film, or it gave you a better understanding of what autism looks like (although it’s it’s a little glamorized), I suggest you consider signing it.
Watch this movie: and wonder what you’d do in Charlie’s place.
Don’t watch this movie: if the answer involves high amounts of winnings.