Friday, March 11, 2011

New on Blu: "Rain Man"

Charlie Babbitt is a hustler, plain and simple. It’s not spelled out, the way it would be in a lazy movie; we put it together ourselves, in flashes of temper and quiet moments observed. He’s a shady businessman, involved in some sort of complicated scheme to import sports cars that aren’t quite up to EPA standards. His relationship with his girlfriend (Valeria Golino) is strained and distant. He’s estranged from his father, and has been for a long time; when he gets the call that the old man has dies, he registers no emotion whatsoever. “Sorry about the weekend,” he tells his girlfriend, as he turns the car around.

Charlie is the main character in Rain Man, Barry Levinson’s Academy Award-winning comedy/drama, and he is played by Tom Cruise, providing the first real hint that he might be more than just a pretty face. Dustin Hoffman co-stars as Raymond, Charlie’s autistic savant older brother, and he won Best Actor for his work; Cruise wasn’t even nominated. That’s the Oscar way—“good acting” is too often conflated with “most acting,” and for several years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the bulk of the trophy winners and nominees were those actors who played characters with some kind of physical or mental handicap*. Hoffman is good in the film. But it is a stunt performance, a piece of gimmickry, “an acting exercise,” Pauline Kael wrote, “working out miniscule variations on his one note.” Of course, the very nature of the character is that he cannot, in any significant way, change (“What difference does it make?” Charlie asks, “he’s gonna be just the same!”). But Charlie can, and does. If the film works—and I maintain it does, still, brilliantly—it is because it is not about Raymond, but about Charlie.

Charlie was, in many ways, a cracked, damaged version of the flashy hotshot that Cruise had already made a specialty of in films like Top Gun, Cocktail, and The Color of Money. Here, in the hands of director Barry Levinson, he pushes that smug, cocky confidence man just a little further and gives him a quality that must’ve made the suits plenty nervous: he makes him unlikable. Charlie is pushy, he’s devious, he’s impatient (“Can I finish?” he snaps at his sympathetic girl), and he’s often downright mean. On the very afternoon that he meets his heretofore unknown brother, who is heir to their father’s considerable fortune, Charlie barely acknowledges any feeling of loss or disappointment that his brother was hidden from him. He’s mainly just mad about the money. So he kidnaps his brother, and quickly proves himself the worst imaginable caretaker for him.

But then, about halfway into their trip across the country (Raymond refuses to fly), there is a scene in a motel bathroom where Charlie has a memory of his brother, the “rain man” who used to come and sing to him. Levinson frames their conversation in a sustained two-shot; the camera is barely there. He lets the two actors set the rhythm of the scene, because it’s about them. It is (in a way that is perhaps easy and perhaps formulaic but moving nonetheless) a breakthrough; as Charlie puts his brother to bed after that encounter, there are things happening in Cruise’s eyes that you can’t even begin to put your finger on.

If you’ve seen Rain Man a few times (as I have), you begin to see the structural integrity of Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow’s screenplay, the marvelous way that the movie pivots on that scene, how it knows that their relationship has changed, and how it acts accordingly. Cruise’s performance evolves as well—there’s a quiet honesty to his poolside scene with Dr. Bruner (Jerry Molen) late in the film, an understated desperation, and understanding of who this guy had become, and why that was unacceptable. Raymond may not be able to change, but Charlie can, and does; he’s the one who finds the emotional truth between them at the story’s end.

Levinson, who was in the midst of a real hot streak when he made Rain Man (it was preceded by Tin Men and Good Morning Vietnam), directs with a smooth, unimposing style; he’s still got his comedy writer’s sense of timing (the overlapping dialogue is fast and smart, particularly when the director himself pops up at the end) and he fills the edges of the scenes with marvelous little touches, like the old man doing the history lecture in the waiting room of the small town doctor’s office. It’s a dialogue-driven movie that never feels visually static; he plays a big highway argument in a huge wide shot and somehow makes it work, and knows when to pull in a haunting image (like the shots of Ray walking ahead of the car as it gets off the main highway). He also makes fine use of his then-signature editing move, the slow fade to black followed by the hard cut in to close-up, which here provides a crucial transition to the climactic Las Vegas scenes.

The film’s got an ever-so-slight third act drag; the dancing business is lovely but probably could have been trimmed without any damage, and the big music cue and “dressing up the boys for Vegas” montage is one of the few places where the film now feels dated (god, every movie had one of those scenes for a while). Then again, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the excitement of the scene; as far as these things go, it’s a pretty good one, and the Vegas sequences—as criticized and parodied as they came to be—work. And there’s one great moment, right in the middle of them, that no one seems to notice: the way Charlie regards the Vegas escort who has approached Raymond at the bar. Look at the little sparkle in Charlie’s eyes. He knows another hustler when he sees one.

Rain Man was so overexposed, overplayed (yes, TNT, please run it again), and over-imitated (the Raymond impression was in every hack ‘80s comic’s toolbox) that it ultimately came to be seen as overrated—a fate that frequently befalls high-grossing Best Picture winners. But the fact of the matter is, it’s a good film, perhaps a great one, and it still plays; what’s more, it’s worth a look as a reminder of what Tom Cruise was capable of, before his career became a pile-up of lazy vehicles and questionable PR decisions.

*Meanwhile, the actors in the more challenging roles opposite them—Robin Williams in “Awakenings”, Denzel Washington in “Philadelphia”, Cruise here—were ignored. Return

"Rain Man" made its Blu-ray debut on February 15th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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