Blu-ray Review: Rain Man (1988)

Now Available to Own

Like the short-lived sugar rush we receive from a candy bar, escapist movies that rely on absurd premises to drive the plot forward may be just the (box office) ticket needed for those of us looking for a quick cinematic fix of distraction we'll forget after as soon as we reach the end.

Yet in stark contrast to the way that memories of these increasingly outlandish premise-driven titles appear and disappear from our brain even faster than they do at the multiplex, there’s no underestimating the lingering impact, humanistic nourishment and generational staying power of a film that’s driven by people rather than a gimmicky premise.

For proof, look no further than director Barry Levinson’s 1988 film Rain Man, which despite boasting the star power of Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise was initially usurped by moviegoers that voted with their wallet to watch the gimmicky pairing of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as eponymous Twins in Ivan Reitman’s premise-driven escapist comedy.

While Twins is now a distant memory, Levinson’s people-driven Rain Man evolved into such a successful word-of-mouth hit that it rose to the top of the box office as the number one movie in every single country where it was showing at the exact same time.

Honored with four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director (Levinson), Actor (Hoffman) and Screenplay (Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow), Rain Man has become an indisputable contemporary classic.

Although it avoids easy sentimentality with a decidedly unsentimental first act, Levinson's intelligent work manages to move us all the same, remaining just as relevant and compelling today as it was in its debut.

Opening like a quintessential '80s Cruise movie -- the actor is exceedingly well-cast as Charlie Babbit, a smooth-talking, cocky yuppie scheming to make a fortune by importing Ferraris into the country on a mountain of borrowed money and endless bullshit that he spins while his eyes widen in Gekko-like greed.

The greed continues once the now-resentful Charlie discovers that he’s been virtually cut out of his estranged and recently deceased father’s three million dollar will. Hoping to tread water while drowning in debt, Charlie tracks down the recipient of his father's will only to learn that it belongs to an older brother he never knew he had in the form of autistic savant Raymond (Hoffman).

And because the action in the film is ultimately driven by the people in the frame as the existence of Raymond figuratively drives the plot forward and inspires Charlie to literally take the wheel and drive, it’s ironically fitting that in his introductory scene Raymond describes himself as “an excellent driver.”

Of course, had Raymond understood the consequences he may not have been so bold in his declaration. Putting his power of persuasion to questionable use, Charlie abducts Raymond from his Ohio mental facility with the firm intention to travel back to L.A. and use Raymond as legal leverage to get his half of their father’s money.

Needless to say, it's a dark twist for a dysfunctional family drama let alone a male bonding picture. Yet against all odds, the screenwriters never lose the warmth and wit that underline even the most heartbreaking scenes by tipping the scales of the power struggle between the brothers in Raymond's favor.

Before they've even left Ohio, Raymond's strict adherence to daily rituals and scheduled activities puts Charlie's plans on the back-burner with the realization that he grossly underestimated his ability to smooth-talk and manipulate Raymond.

Growing into a surprisingly funny and uniquely touching dramady as it continues, Rain Man works tremendously well as a metaphorical (and literal) road movie wherein maps and mileage are always secondary to the evolution of the character[s] from one point to the next.

Yet because any change in the character of Raymond would immediately turn Rain Man into a fairy tale given the nature of his condition, we eventually realize that the real journey began long before Raymond ever entered the picture when we originally met Charlie.

However, despite the fact that Charlie is capable of major change, Cruise's authentic and controlled performance ensures that every new revelation and evolution in the arc of his character is not only carefully paced but also well-earned.

And while Hoffman easily dominates in a pitch-perfect Oscar winning characterization that's become justifiably iconic in its own right, on repeat viewings it's Cruise that continues to impress in a work that showcased his range beyond "the hostshot" and served as a great stepping stone in his career from superstar to character actor.

In an underrated turn, Cruise alternates from daringly aggressive to wildly charismatic in his earliest scenes to illustrate the two basic modes of Charlie as a man who either commands or manipulates to get what he wants before he learns the meaning of genuine compassion while gradually discovering more about his past, present and future alongside his brother.

Additionally, from a screenwriting perspective, it's fascinating to study the first act again to better appreciate the techniques used by the writers in not only subtly foreshadowing what was to occur as the movie continued but also in the way that a link between the brothers was established before they even share a scene together through shared interests, phrasing, and other characterization.

Though it does lack a digital copy or a DVD (perhaps because it isn’t an anniversary release), Rain Man’s beautifully transferred high definition premiere does boast a trio of audio commentaries (Levinson; Morrow; Bass), one fascinating featurette regarding the making-of the film that includes unique insight from Levinson, the original trailer, a single deleted scene and a featurette dealing with autism.

However, the true standout in this edition of Levinson's masterful people-driven picture comes from listening to the incredible Oscar nominated score from Hans Zimmer (making his Hollywood debut), which has never sounded as amazing as it does here in Fox’s 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.