Morrow created the character of Raymond after meeting Kim Peek, a real-life savant; his characterization was based on both Peek and Bill Sackter, a good friend of Morrow who was the subject of Bill, an earlier film that Morrow wrote.
Charlie Babbitt is in the middle of importing four Lamborghinis to Los Angeles for resale. He needs to deliver the vehicles to impatient buyers who have already made down payments in order to repay the loan he took out to buy the cars, but the EPA is holding the cars at the port due to the cars failing emissions regulations. Charlie directs an employee to lie to the buyers while he stalls his creditor.
When Charlie learns that his estranged father has died, he and his girlfriend Susanna travel to Cincinnati, Ohio in order to settle the estate. He learns he is receiving the classic 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible which he and his father fought over, but the bulk of the $3 million estate is going to an unnamed trustee. Through social engineering he learns the money is being directed to a mental institution where he meets his older brother, Raymond Babbitt, of whom he was previously unaware.
Raymond has savant syndrome and adheres to strict routines. He has superb recall but he shows little emotional expression except when in distress. Charlie spirits Raymond out of the mental institution and into a hotel for the night. Susanna becomes upset with the way Charlie treats his brother and leaves. Charlie asks Raymond's doctor, Dr. Gerald R. Bruner, for half the estate in exchange for Raymond's return, but he refuses. Charlie decides to attempt to gain custody of his brother in order to get control of the money.
After Raymond refuses to fly back to Los Angeles, they set out on a cross-country road trip together. During the course of the journey, Charlie learns more about Raymond, including that he is a mental calculator with the ability to instantly count hundreds of objects at once, far beyond the normal range of human subitizing abilities. He also learns that Raymond actually lived with the family when Charlie was young and he realizes that the comforting figure from his childhood, whom he falsely remembered as an imaginary friend named "Rain Man", was actually Raymond.
They make slow progress because Raymond insists on sticking to his routines, which include watching Judge Wapner on television every day and getting to bed by 11:00 PM. He also objects to traveling on the interstate after they pass a bad accident.
After the Lamborghinis are seized by his creditor, Charlie finds himself $80,000 in the hole and hatches a plan to return to Las Vegas, which they passed the night before, and win money at blackjack by counting cards. Though the casino bosses are skeptical that anyone can count cards with a six deck shoe, after reviewing security footage they ask Charlie and Raymond to leave. Charlie has made enough to cover his debts and has reconciled with Susanna who rejoined them in Las Vegas.
Back in Los Angeles, Charlie meets with Dr. Bruner, who offers him $250,000 to walk away from Raymond. Charlie refuses and says that he is no longer upset about what his father left him, but he wants to have a relationship with his brother. At a meeting with a court-appointed psychiatrist Raymond is shown to be unable to decide for himself what he wants. Charlie stops the questioning and tells Raymond he is happy to have him as his brother.
In the final scene, Charlie brings Raymond to the train station where he boards an Amtrak train with Dr. Bruner to return to the mental institution. Charlie promises Raymond that he will visit in two weeks.Dustin Hoffman as Raymond "Ray" Babbitt
Tom Cruise as Charles "Charlie" Babbitt
Valeria Golino as Susanna
Jerry Molen as Dr. Bruner
Ralph Seymour as Lenny
Michael D. Roberts as Vern
Bonnie Hunt as Sally Dibbs
Beth Grant as Mother at Farm House
Lucinda Jenney as Iris
Barry Levinson as Dr. Marston (uncredited)
Jake Hoffman as a boy at Pancake Counter (uncredited)
Roger Birnbaum was the first studio executive to give the film a green light; he did so immediately after Barry Morrow pitched the story. Birnbaum received "special thanks" in the film's credits.
Agents at CAA sent the script to Hoffman and Bill Murray, envisioning Murray in the title role and Hoffman in the role eventually portrayed by Cruise. Martin Brest, Steven Spielberg, and Sydney Pollack were directors also involved in the film. Mickey Rourke was also offered a role but he turned it down.
Principal photography included nine weeks of filming on location. Other portions were shot in the desert near Palm Springs, California.
Almost all of the principal photography occurred during the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike; one key scene that was affected by the lack of writers was the film's final scene. Bass delivered his last rough cut of the script only hours before the strike started and spent no time on the set.
The film has an approval rating of 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and an average rating of 7.9 out of 10. The critical consensus states: "This road-trip movie about an autistic savant and his callow brother is far from seamless, but Barry Levinson's direction is impressive, and strong performances from Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman add to its appeal."
Vincent Canby of The New York Times called Rain Man a "becomingly modest, decently thought-out, sometimes funny film"; Hoffman's performance was a "display of sustained virtuosity . . . [which] makes no lasting connections with the emotions. Its end effect depends largely on one's susceptibility to the sight of an actor acting nonstop and extremely well, but to no particularly urgent dramatic purpose." Canby considered the "film's true central character" to be "the confused, economically and emotionally desperate Charlie, beautifully played by Mr. Cruise."
Amy Dawes of Variety wrote that "one of the year's most intriguing film premises ... is given uneven, slightly off-target treatment"; she called the road scenes "hastily, loosely written, with much extraneous screen time," but admired the last third of the film, calling it a depiction of "two very isolated beings" who "discover a common history and deep attachment."
One of the film's harshest reviews came from New Yorker magazine critic Pauline Kael: "Everything in this movie is fudged ever so humanistically, in a perfunctory, low-pressure way. And the picture has its effectiveness: people are crying at it. Of course they're crying at it – it's a piece of wet kitsch."
Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars out of four.
Rain Man debuted on December 16, 1988, and was the second highest-grossing film at the weekend box office (behind Twins), with $7 million. It reached the first spot on the December 30 – January 2 weekend, finishing 1988 with $42 million. The film would end up as the highest-grossing U.S. film of 1988 by earning over $172 million. The film grossed over $354 million worldwide.
Rain Man won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Dustin Hoffman), Best Director and Best Writing, Original Screenplay. It was nominated for Best Art Direction (Art Direction: Ida Random; Set Decoration: Linda DeScenna), Best Cinematography (John Seale), Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score (Hans Zimmer).
The film was nominated for twenty-four other ceremonies, including the Golden Globes, in which it won Best Motion Picture in the drama genre and Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), and was nominated for Best Director (Barry Levinson) and Best Screenplay (Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow). Valeria Golino received a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the Silver Ribbon.
Rain Man's portrayal of the main character's condition has been seen as inaugurating a common but mistaken media stereotype that people on the autism spectrum typically have savant skills, and references to Rain Man, in particular Dustin Hoffman's performance, have become a popular shorthand for autism and savantism. Conversely, Rain Man has also been seen as dispelling a number of other misconceptions about autism, and improving public awareness of the failure of many agencies to accommodate autistic people and make use of the abilities they do have, regardless of whether they have savant skills or not.
The film is also known for popularizing the misconception that card counting is illegal in the United States.
The superhero Sewer Urchin in The Tick is based on Raymond Babbitt, at least in the way he speaks.
During June 1989, at least fifteen major airlines showed edited versions of Rain Man that omitted a scene involving Raymond's refusal to fly, except for Australia-based Qantas. Those criticizing this move included film director Barry Levinson, co-screenwriter Ronald Bass, and George Kirgo (at the time the President of the Writers Guild of America, West). "I think it's a key scene to the entire movie," Levinson said in a telephone interview. "That's why it's in there. It launches their entire odyssey across country – because they couldn't fly." While some of those airlines cited as justification avoiding having airplane passengers feel uncomfortable in sympathy with Raymond during the in-flight entertainment, the scene was shown intact on flights of Qantas, and commentators noted that Raymond mentions it as the only airline whose planes have "never crashed". The film is in fact credited with introducing Qantas' safety record to U.S. consumers.