Rain Man (February 1/04)
The first sentence of Pauline Kael's review for Rain Man reads, "Rain Man is Dustin Hoffman humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes." Though his performance has been imitated and parodied in the years since the film's release, Hoffman undeniably does a fantastic job of becoming this entirely different person. Kael seemingly objects to the single-mindedness with which Raymond, Hoffman's character, approaches life; how are we to know that a man with that kind of autism wouldn't behave in the exact same manner?
Hoffman's performance is so memorable it's easy enough to forget that he's not even the central character; rather, Raymond's brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) plays a far more pivotal role in propelling the story forward. As the movie opens, Charlie is in the midst of attempting to keep his shady business afloat (it has something to do with expensive cars) when he learns that his estranged father has passed away. At the reading of the will, Charlie discovers that his departed dad was worth over $3 million - though his brother Raymond is the sole beneficiary of said cash. The catch is Charlie never knew he had a brother, so he heads to the home where Raymond lives and abducts him - in the hope that he'll be able to barter for half the dough.
Rain Man is clearly a product of the late '80s, as evidenced by the uncommonly distracting score by Hans Zimmer and the sun-bleached look of the movie. Though the themes and performances remain intact some 15 years later, there's no denying the fact that director Barry Levinson was perhaps a little too influenced by what was hot at the time. But unlike some other movies from that decade that don't quite hold up (ie To Live and Die in L.A.), Rain Man remains a compelling film - anchored by two fabulous lead performances.
Less plot-driven than one might expect, Rain Man is mostly a series of vignettes as Charlie and Raymond hit the road (Raymond refuses to fly, since every major airline has had at least one crash - except Qantas, which only flies out of Australia). This leads to sequences that most audiences will be familiar with, even if they've not seen the movie (ie the moment in which Raymond instantly recalls the number of a waitress after reading half the phone book the night before). But really, Charlie and Raymond's misadventures are secondary; it's the development of Charlie as a character that really keeps us involved.
Though it initially seems as though Charlie's going to the sort of cocky and self-assured type that Cruise excels at, there's more going on here than just the standard grin-and-smirk performance that dominated much of Cruise's early work. Charlie's cliched journey from selfish cad to considerate gentleman is made all-the-more convincing thanks to Cruise's surprisingly effective work. And then, of course, there's Hoffman. The veteran actor never breaks concentration for a second, and turns Raymond into a figure that's absolutely convincing. It's the ticks and mannerisms that Kael objected to that allow Raymond to become a fully fleshed-out character; though we're not given a lot of backstory on him, it's simple enough to glean info about his past through various little things he does throughout the movie.
Though the film perhaps wasn't entirely deserving of the Best Picture Oscar, there's no denying that Rain Man is a superbly acted drama. Cruise and Hoffman create characters that are so intriguing that the predictability of the story and late '80s directorial flourishes are easily overlooked.