There can’t be many films which are such products of their time as Rain Man. Everything about it screams the late eighties: the Reagan-ite philosophies of individualism and unrestrained consumerism; ultra-glossy production values; a penchant for melodrama or, in the words of Pauline Kael, “wet kitsch”; and Tom Cruise in a leading role. Now it has been re-written for the stage, by Dan Gordon no less, and I expected the story to jar terribly with our modern sensibilities. It doesn’t — it just falls completely flat instead.
Replacing Cruise and Dustin Hoffman are, respectively, Oliver Chris (of Green Wing) and Neil Morrissey. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither quite lives up to the challenge of filling out the roles carved so distinctively by their predecessors. As Charlie Babbitt, Chris is simply incapable of matching Cruise’s pathological emptiness. He is a bit too likeable, unable to replicate the insincerity and emotional void exhibited by his forebear.
Still, he gamely attempts to convey the same repellant strain of mercantile ambition which is Charlie’s raison d'être throughout the story, affecting a slightly stagey, generic but passable American accent with a laudable lack of inhibition, and the overall effect is endearing, if only in a rather indefinable sense. The same cannot be said of Morrissey. At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, the erstwhile Men Behaving Badly star is no Dustin Hoffman. He has none of the pathos — or maybe it was just naked Oscar lust — present in Hoffman’s portrayal of the card-counting autistic savant, and on which the entire play rests.
The consequence of such lessened performances — and incredibly flimsy, IKEA-ish set design — is that is much harder to ignore how little substance the story has. Sure, it goes through the motions of countless coming-of-age, family-reconciliation dramas, but at its heart, it is cold and cynical. The emotional pinnacle — the point at which Charlie and Raymond’s relationship supposedly reaches its zenith — is the penultimate casino scene, and parsed of its meaning, it is pretty tasteless. After practically kidnapping his newly-discovered brother so as to receive the inheritance he feels he deserves, and driving him across the country for days, Charlie comes across the idea that maybe Ray would be a great poker buddy, and lo! He’s right; they come away from Vegas with hundreds of thousands of dollars; their relationship on a high.
Essentially, Charlie exploits his mentally disabled sibling for a bit of cash — his exact original intent, manifest through different means — and the act is supposed to be a heartwarming one.
On paper, Gordon’s script seems faithful to the original, but it is wholly perfunctory: the result is like watching the film on fast forward, with conversations sped through, and each obstacle dealt with and abruptly moved on from, which is all the more disappointing when compared with his previous works, which include screenplays for The Hurricane and Wyatt Earp. Such an unimaginative, literal adaptation simply raises the question, why did anyone bother?
Rain Man was performed at the Theatre Royal.