It is difficult enough for a filmmaker to form a bond between his characters and the audience. When those characters are constructed in such a fashion that there world view is entirely foreign to the viewer that difficultly is compounded exponentially. One track that can result in this has become increasingly popular over the last decade or so; the main character is autistic. The medical community has only recently begun to garner a glimmer of understanding about the etiology and manifestation of disorders on the autistic spectrum. The filmmaker is caught between invoking sympathy from the audience and treating the afflicted person with respect eschewing the tendency to use the person as a punch line for a joke or outright ridiculing him. The history of movies is full of cases where the mentally disabled are treated as less than human; defined only by their differences. We consider ourselves more enlightened now but there was still a remnant of this social convention back in 1988 during the time the film ‘Rain Man’ was released. As such the portrayal of a man with an autistic spectrum disorder is done with the typical Hollywood stereotypes barely discernable from a caricature. Even with that consideration this film provides an excellent platform for a pair of incredible performance by two of the industry’s most versatile actors. While the film is admittedly not great it is certainly not without its charm and that goes a long way towards making this a popular and enduring movie. Like many films in the illustrious MGM/UA movie catalog this one has recently received the high definition treatment with a Blu-ray edition. Some may feel that the increased definition isn’t warranted in a movie devoid of special effects but the difference is not only noticeable it makes the film into an entirely new experience. You will notice subtle details that only come out in 1080p and lossless audio. The realism is heightening to the point where it is easy to forget you are watching a film; you experience it.
The foundation of film is the fact that both of the main actors are portraying character tropes that they both have a great deal of experience manifesting. Tom Cruise plays Charlie Babbitt, a slick sort of man who has gotten through life on his handsome looks and glib tongue. This is necessary to offset his generally self serving dismissive demeanor. This comes in handy furthering his career importing expensive, high end automobiles. After his father dies Charlie discovers a trust was set up to send money to a mental institution. It turns out that the funds are for the upkeep of his brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). Charlie is on a trip with his girlfriend, Susanna (Valeria Golino) when he gets the news detouring to meet the brother he never knew he had. Also part of the inheritance was a classic Buick Roadmaster convertible and some prize rosebushes. Raymond is autistic, possessing almost super human memory and a savant in mathematics but socially little more than a child. Just as Cruise is expert at playing the good looking rouge Hoffman is of of his generation’s greatest character actors. Just as when he slipped into a female persona as ‘Tootsie’ he dons the characteristics of Ray with exceptional skill and flair. This characterization of Raymond is now famous not so much for its diagnostic accuracy but for the pathos it evokes with the audience. Hoffman plays Ray as an innocent trying to cope with a world just beyond his meager social skills to understand. He incorporates mannerisms that demonstrate a nervous energy coming from constantly being in an unfamiliar situation.
Hoffman gently presents Raymond’s autism with as series of tick like motions, odd vocal mannerisms including a form of echophilia and a complete surrendering of body motion to the character. While Hoffman never overtly makes fun of the disorder opting instead for dusting the character with a light, gentile touch of warm humankind experiences of humanistic humor.
The brilliance of the film is how the script by Ronald Bass based on the novel a Barry Morrow juxtaposes the diametrically opposed characters of the two estranged brothers. Morrow is best known for lighter romantic comedies but took home the best script Oscar for this screenplay. I always seem to enjoy a story that delves into the inner working of the mysterious human mind. In this case we get to contrast two divergent thought patterns; one a schema the other a gifted innocent. Raymond is elated to help count cards in a casino just to be able to reach out to form some sort of bond with this stranger people say is related to him. There is almost a puppy dog loyalty at work here the harden Charlie is moved to reconsider his own place in the world. Ray is not a catalyst; he is affected by the relationship just as must as the jaded Charlie. .
This is where the high definition helps out. I have seen this film many times before but never quite noticed the nuances of the performances, particularly with Hoffman. Watching this release it became evident just what a character actor this man is; he controls the tiniest muscles of his face and body giving a fullness to his character from the very core outward, when you watch take note of his fingers, how is posture manifests and the look in his eyes. This is beyond a performance; it is the embodiment of another person.