The film that first broke the silent barrier of autism, Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (1988) is a frank and very unique glimpse into that isolated, and still largely unknown medical curiosity of the mind. The film's purpose is perhaps equally divided between its desire to entertain and educate; an awkward construction built into Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass' screenplay that occasionally becomes heavy handed.
Nevertheless, the story is immeasurably blessed by Dustin Hoffman's central performance as the autistic Raymond Babbitt. Hoffman's great gift to movies has always been his ability to get inside the head of a character and fully mine the possibilities to reveal subtle nuances and self reflexive moments of introspection. Yet, how does any actor get inside the head of someone stricken with this crippling disease that denies that very access with a genuine inability to express one's self in clear, articulate terms. Quite easily, the character of Raymond Babbitt could have degenerated into mere lampoon - an aping of the external characteristics of the illness without understanding the human being suffering from it.
But Hoffman's portrait is neither as superficial, nor as condescending as all that. Rather, he finds the extraordinary humanity lurking beneath Raymond's outwardly despondent facade. When we laugh at his characterization it isn't because Raymond seems wholly ridiculous or easily made to be the figure of fun for our amusement, but because we completely recognize how similar he is to us all beneath his autistic condition.
The film begins in earnest with Raymond's 'normal' brother, Charlie (Tom Cruise), a con artist looking to unload some snazzy Lamborghini's on unsuspecting buyers without first passing their emission tests. Charlie's girlfriend, Susanna (Valerie Golino) is sympathetic to Charlie's predicament. Moreover, she genuinely loves this man who is strangely aloof, and occasionally quite cold toward her advances.
Charlie receives word that his father Sanford has died. But the reading of Sanford's will is hardly what Charlie expected. Stemming from a long standing rift in their father/son relationship, Sanford has left his entire estate in trust to Charlie's brother - Raymond - a brother that Charlie did not even know he had.
Journeying to the sanitarium to reunite with Raymond, Charlie learns from Dr. Bruner (Jerry Molen) that Raymond has autism. Self serving, and in desperate need of Raymond's inheritance - the birthright he feels he has been denied - Charlie decides to kidnap his brother to extort money from Dr. Bruner.
Charlie is ruthless, greedy and uncaring; all qualities that Susanna eventually decides are deal breakers in their relationship. She leaves Charlie to look after Raymond by himself; a full time job that Charlie is ill-prepared to handle. However, her abandonment leads to a most fortuitous bonding between the brothers. Because of Raymond's aversion to flying, Charlie is forced to drive cross country. At first, this leads to many a one sided frustration for Charlie. But Charlie gradually begins to learn that Raymond's illness also comes with its own special set of gifts - chiefly, in Raymond's ability to count cards while the two make an overnight stop in Las Vegas.
Raymond wins Charlie an awful lot of money. But their deception incurs the wrath of the casino/hotel manager who 'encourages' the boys to collect their winnings and never come back. Charlie decides that there might be other ways of exploiting Raymond's talents and takes his brother back to his home. But Raymond's confusion in unfamiliar surroundings almost burns the place down. Eventually Charlie comes to the realization that he loves his brother just enough to return him to the sanitarium – the only place where Raymond will be truly content and genuinely looked after.
Rain Man is a story about bittersweet realizations. Hoffman’s ability to immerse himself in his character is both startling and effective. His Raymond emerges as a deeply felt, finely wrought and multi-dimensional person for whom the world will always acquire a slightly skewed perspective. Tom Cruise's performance is really second rate when directly compared to Hoffman's. As an actor, he's too in love with his own already galvanic matinee idol image to be wholly believable.
In her all too brief scenes, Valerie Golino adds warmth and charm that the story otherwise lacks outside of Hoffman's sympathetic turn. It's really no surprise that Hoffman won the Best Actor Academy Award. But I must say it's rather surprising the film took home Best Picture. Levinson's direction is stilted. Both he and cameraman, John Seale rely almost exclusively on Hoffman's ability to sustain the visuals, and for the most part, the actor does not disappoint. But there really isn't much to the film without Hoffman because Rain Man is a one man show.
MGM Home Video's Blu-ray doesn't exactly blow the lid off hi-def transfers either. Minted from what I suspect are the same tired digital files used to make the DVD, this time merely bumped up to a 1080p single, Rain Man's image is middle of the road at best. Colors are bright, but don't quite pop or achieve that level of spatial separation that we've come to expect from Blu-ray. Contrast levels are adequately realized, but fine details are wanting in darker scenes and film grain continues to exhibit a rather unnatural 'clumpy' feel that belies no full scale remastering from the original camera negative has occurred.
The audio is 5.1 DTS and nicely balanced though continuing to sound slightly dated. All of the extra features from MGM/Fox's Special Edition DVD are imported for the Blu-ray and include three audio commentaries, a very short featurette on the making of the film and the film’s theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)