The "Rain Man," auto theft, and his 1949 Buick Roadmaster

“Rain Man,” like "Breathless" and "No Man's Land" centered on the theme of the empty man. Tom Cruise plays a superficial, slick, hard driving, but quasi-legitimate importer of luxury performance automobiles named Charlie Babbitt. Caught in the middle of a financial crises involving four grey-market Lamborghinis, Charlie seems posed to either attain success he desperately craves, or lose his shirt. Scenes between Charlie and his loving girlfriend reveal he is boorish and emotionally dysfunctional. The story thickens with news of his father death in Cincinnati. Returning home to see to the estate, the secrets of Charlie’s past begin to come to light. We learn the source of his troubled personality lay in his youthful theft of this father’s classic Buick Road Master convertible. That joy ride, prompted by paternal callousness, has shaped the rest of his life. Angered at his father, Charlie ran away from home and in the intervening years it seems Charlie has worked to prove he was his father’s equal. Not surprisingly, given the nature of their conflict he seeks to achieve it with automobiles. In one final sign of abandonment, Charlie is left nothing in his father’s multi-million dollar will except, in a final parting shot, his father bequeaths him the aforementioned Road Master and several prized rosebushes.
But here the story takes another turn. Charlie learns the estate was left to autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) that he never knew he had. Hoping to squeeze half the money out of his brother's executor, Charlie kidnaps Raymond. Forced by the peculiarity of his brother’s conditions to drive cross-country to California in the Road Master, Charlie is inadvertently put on the road to deeper level of self-discovery and masculine redemption. As the trip unfolds, we learn that the callousness of Charlie’s father toward him resulted from the role inadvertently played in Raymond’s institutionalization: Raymond accidently injured Charlie by scalding him. It might also be the case that because both brothers shared their father’s love of the Road Master—and here we see again the automobile as women, in this case the missing mother—his is father’s latent anger with Charlie was deepened then by an Oedipal conflict over the car. As Charlie rediscovers love for his brother and need to responsibility, the audience realizes that his attempt to achieve autonomous manliness selling exotic but soulless European vehicles was always doomed to failure. His salvation lay in a return to the classic American car, and key to his own salvation. By the end of their journey together, Charlie realizes he must put Raymond’s needs before his own but this evolution in sober manly responsibility reconciles him with his girlfriend and brings put him on the road to a happy future.


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