Rain Man: Special Edition Review
Up until 1988, the subject of mental disability had largely been confined to the backwaters of afternoon TV Movies. Sporting such titles as His Mother’s Son: The True Story of Johnny Simple, their saccharine, soft focus approach to the issue had presented a one dimensional picture of the subject (“His mind is confused, but his heart is full of love”) that, while perhaps well-meaning, did no favours to anyone and did not provide a realistic account of what many people had to live with. Because of these, when screenwriter Barry Morrow first came to pitch his idea for Rain Man to the studios, he wasn’t sure it was suitable for a theatrical release, such had been the lack of similar films in the cinemas. He needn’t have worried though. Although he didn’t realise it at the time, his film would kick start a whole new genre.
Released just after Wall Street, Rain Man’s Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is a subscriber to the famous mantra that Greed is Good. On the verge of a deal that will make or break him, he hears that his estranged father has passed away. Hoping to get a hold of his parent’s three million dollar estate he is astonished to find that the will bequeaths it instead to an older brother, Raymond, who he never knew he had. When Charlie meets him he discovers that Raymond is an autistic savant, meaning that he is unable to communicate or appreciate emotional human interactions but has a phenomenal memory and mathematical ability. Unwilling to let a potential cash cow slip through his fingers, Charlie takes Raymond away from the institution he has been living in and heads back to LA to get custody, expecting then to get his hands on his father’s millions. What he isn’t expecting is the profound way the subsequent journey is going to affect him.
Because we are so familiar with this kind of material, we all know how the film is going to go. We know that Charlie will slowly bond with Raymond, that by living life with this innocent he will be forced to re-evaluate what is important in his life. We know that by the end of the film Charlie will end up not caring about the money but Raymond, and we know that this will happen in incremental stages during a series of bonding scenes. All this is taken as read (although it is difficult to remember that the way the film developed would have been much less predictable in 1988). The interest, then, is not so much in the destination of the film as the journey taken to get there and the question that must be asked is, is it a journey worth taking with these two characters?
Thankfully the answer is yes. The most obvious reason for this is in how Raymond himself is portrayed. The crucial thing in any film like this is how the disability is handled. The subject by its very nature requires extremely delicate treatment on the part of the film makers – if you don’t play it exactly right you run of the risk of either trivialising these conditions or overplaying them in a way that creates a caricature rather than an accurate picture. Fortunately, Rain Man’s Raymond Babbitt is note-perfect, giving this rare condition the three-dimensionality it needed to be both believable and moving. In particular, and as cruel as it may initially sound, its use of humour to bring out the pathos rings entirely true. Those who have had experience of people with mental handicaps will know that quite often they can produce moments that are simultaneously hilarious and gutwrenchingly tragic. The most obvious example here is the scene in which Raymond walks in while Charlie and his girlfriend Susanna are having sex and calmly sits at the bottom of the bed watching television and imitating the noises the two lovers are making. As funny as the scene is – and it is, from the way it’s shot to the way Hoffman has Raymond imitate pitch-perfect the moaning couple – it also underlines the terrible thing that Raymond doesn’t understand intimacy. It’s not the fact that he’ll never have sex that is the tragedy but the fact he’ll never share that level of connection with another person, indeed would not understand the connection, or comprehend what it means.
Every tick and mannerism feels right, whether it be his slouching, shuffling walk, the way he speaks or the fact that he never makes eye contact with anyone. Hoffman spent a lot of time with real autistics to get a good feel for their way of acting and behaviour traits, and the resulting naturalistic performance is one of his very best. There is a complete lack of emotion in his face, the glint in his eyes that is so often there erased completely. His controlled performance is such that at times we can even emphasise with Charlie – Raymond’s obstinacy can be frustrating, and even the most level-headed person can fly off the handle sometimes when pushed too far. At the same time, the fact that the character is so vulnerable and yet has no notion of his situation (one of the few times he actually answers a question with more than a simple “I don’t know” is when he’s asked if he thinks he’s autistic – “No,” he says) means he can do nothing but inspire affection from the audience. The balance is a tricky one to manage (and some later examples of the genre have been far less successful in managing it) but Hoffman does it beautifully.
The contrast with Cruise is marked, his nervous energy offset by Hoffman’s controlled stillness. Cruise reminds one somewhat of a young pup who dances around a respected old dog, the youngster doing everything it can to impress the respected elder. It was an important film for Cruise’s career – although he was already at superstar status at the time this was made, his reputation was based on a series of surface level, dare I say it trivial roles, in the likes of Risky Business and Top Gun, and he was eager to prove that he cut it in a more demanding role (his previous attempt in The Color of Money bringing rather mixed results). He does extremely well too – his performance is, in its own way, just as good as Dustin’s. The film is, after all, Charlie Babbitt’s story as opposed to Raymond’s, and Cruise does an excellent job of showing the gradual melting of the business man to his brother, his natural arrogance slowly being eroded by Raymond’s lack of reaction to him.
That his character changes comes across credibly and smoothly is a bit of a miracle considering the number of screenwriters that had a go at the story. Although the film does at times veer towards feeling ever so slightly manipulative, there are enough genuinely heartfelt moments that make this the feel good film it is striving to be. The scene when Charlie realises that he does actually remember Raymond from his childhood, the connection to the title, is particularly good, all the more so because it is underplayed and quiet. The progression of Charlie’s development and his changing attitude to Raymond is portrayed so naturally and skilfully that there is never a jarring moment. His initial reactions to his brother, his aggressive yelling and frustration at not being able to communicate with him, gives way gradually to an understanding that Raymond is not being deliberately obtuse or difficult, it’s just the way he is. At one point early in the film Charlie says to him that he knows he can understand him and that he is being difficult on purpose, but subsequent events show him that this is not the case. The frustration becomes a desire to understand exactly how Raymond’s mind works, bringing him to consult a psychiatrist in the middle of nowhere, which in turn leads to an acceptance of him and an attempt to see things through Raymond’s eyes. It’s entirely believable and rather touching.
There are many small moments like that. There’s the scene where Raymond refuses to get on a plane, a simple moment that nevertheless has a power to it, and is the moment that Charlie, although he doesn’t realise it at the time, really begins to fall for his brother. This is reflected neatly at the end in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where Charlie makes Raymond laugh – the one point in the film in which you see Raymond react positively – that is enough to make the most hardened cynic crack. Even the lengthy Las Vegas scene with the two cleaning up at the Blackjack table works nicely. In contrast to these, the scene of Raymond learning to dance to Charlie near the end is a bit too on the nose to be as moving as it would like to be, as is the subsequent scene in the elevator. The crucial point, though, is that while some of the scenes are constructed a little artificially to make us feel a certain way, the two central characters are always written with truth.
Barry Levinson was very much a director for hire when he came onto the project, being no less than the fourth man offered the job. However, he manages to make his own mark on the film, bringing the best out of his actors and keeping the pace up. Although there are maybe too many shots of the two men walking side by side, overall he keeps a handle on things and keeps the pace up. The music is evocative, too – the rhythmic tribal-sounding beats the kind of music you can imagine autistics would respond to.
When it came out, Rain Man was the sleeper hit of the year, its box office snowballing as word spread. Nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture it took home four, with Hoffman, Levinson and the two screenwriters all receiving well deserved nods. For people of a certain age it will instil fond memories, and yet for some reason in the general film consciousness it is not as well remembered as other films of the era. Perhaps it’s because the more optimistic view of humanity and genuine warmth on display do not fit with the cultural stereotype of Greed is Good that we like to pigeonhole the 80s with, or maybe because the many, paler imitators that were subsequently greenlighted (reaching its nadir with the dreadful I am Sam) have made us forgot the effect it had at the time. For whatever reason, it is well worth revisiting now, if only to see Tom Cruise cement his reputation as Hollywood’s golden boy and Dustin Hoffman giving us another of the tour de force performances that have made him one of the most respected actors of his generation. Very enjoyable.
The film comes on one disk that crams a lot of stuff on its two layers. The main menu is comprised of a design incorporating a scene from the film coupled with ideas reflecting Raymond’s savant mathematical abilities, all accompanied by a short loop of music from the film. The extras come in a mixture of widescreen and fullscreen formats and are all subtitled aside from the trailer and commentaries (the main film, naturally, has subtitles too).
The image occasionally looks a little soft but overall holds up very well. There is little trace of artefacting or edge enhancement, making it a solid digital transfer.
Rain Man is not the loudest or flashiest of movies, and as such is never going to ask much out of a surround system. The dialogue is fine but not as crisp as you get from more modern movies, although the disk does handle the Las Vegas, which is the most aurally interesting scene, well.
Lifting the Fog: A Look at the Mysteries of Autism
Fascinating twenty minute documentary looking at autism, featuring experts in the field, people who have family with the condition, and autistics themselves. This last is especially interesting as you get a chance to see how close the film’s portrayal actually was to real life. In particular, it makes it easier to appreciate the detail of Hoffman’s performance when we meet Peter Guthrie, the man the actor most based his characterisation of Raymond on, who at times seems identical to his fictional counterpart, albeit with more emotion. The only complaint is it could have been longer.
There are an impressive three commentaries on the disk. The first, by director Barry Levinson, is interesting enough as far as it goes. He talks about certain aspects of the film, why he made the choices that he did and shot how he did. Unfortunately, this is one of those stop start tracks, with lengthy periods of silence before the director starts up again. This makes it more of a chore to listen to than it could have been. A pity because when he does speak it’s worth listening to.
The second track is much better. Barry Morrow was the writer who originally pitched the idea for Rain Man and wrote the original screenplay, and here gives an excellent commentary. Detailing everything from where his ideas came from, the initial meetings, the writing of the screenplay itself and what happened subsequently, Morrow is a pleasant, interesting man to listen to, whose passion about the project comes through even though his actual tone doesn’t deviate. All writers’ commentaries should be like this one.
The third begins strongly but really fades towards the end. Ronald Bass was the other main writer on the movie, called in after several other writers had had a go at Morrow’s screenplay. He starts off well with the story of how he became involved but the later stages of the commentary descend into his making a very occasional comment, that makes Levinson’s seem overwhelming with information in comparison. Listen to the first half but don’t bother with the second.
The Journey of Rain Man
A twenty minute documentary presumably made for the DVD release, this features talking heads interviews with the director, screenwriters and associated people, although no Hoffman or Cruise. Takes a bit of a scattergun approach, not really focusing on any one detail for long enough in its attempts to cover everything about the movie. Also repeats information we get elsewhere. Okay but not stellar.
Six and a half minute featurette made at the time of the film’s release. Although it follows the standard formula of such promotional pieces, it comes across with having a bit more heart than most modern examples, with the various talking heads from Hoffman, Cruise (who looks much younger than in the film), Levinson and all, talking about why they made the film. Nice, if lightweight.
Two minute scene of Raymond going into a store. Easy to see why it was cut out as it doesn’t add anything that isn’t in the film already.
An oddly humourous approach to the trailer, showing the more light hearted moments of the picture (and ruining the best joke in the process). It gives a slightly skewed idea of what the film is about but is okay.
One of those photo galleries that play automatically rather than you having to flick manually through each photo. Divided into five sections – the film makers, Tom and Dustin, Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Valeria Golino – there are some very nice behind the scenes shots included.
A fine film is backed up by an excellent series of extras that are both appropriate and broaden the film’s appeal. Well worth a look.
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Last updated: 02/05/2018 13:53:45