Winner of the 1988 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (for Dustin Hoffman), Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, Rain Man has held up very well to the passing of time, and I suspect will continue to do so. Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is a driven young man, still hurting from his childhood conflict with his father. When he discovers a long-lost brother, Raymond (Hoffman), smoldering resentments come to life and Charlie sees Raymond as unfairly taking more than his share: of his father's estate, and perhaps also of his father's love. What happens after that is an unexpected road trip that allows Charlie to really get to know Raymond... and shakes up his own ideas about what he really wants.
Possibly the best-known aspect of Rain Man, familiar even to those who haven't seen the movie, is its autistic character, brought to a very believable life by Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman is always in character: for the duration of the film, he is Raymond, occupying a world of his own with only occasional, brief connections to the outer world inhabited by the rest of us. Critics have pointed out that Raymond isn't exactly a typical autistic; for one thing, the "savant" portion of his disability is extremely rare. But this is, after all, film: without Raymond's special abilities, we could still have a story, but it's not the one that the filmmakers chose to tell. Another criticism is that he's atypically able to deal with the outside world, but again the film makes it clear that Raymond is a "high-functioning" autistic, with a severe disability but still an ability to relate to the outside world in at least a limited way. Interestingly, since 1988, research into autism has made Raymond's character more, rather than less, plausible: rather than a disorder that always has certain effects, autism is now recognized as falling along a spectrum, from the most severely affected who will never even learn to speak, to individuals who have a few minor quirks but can get by perfectly well in everyday life.
The cinematography of Rain Main is understated; there are no fancy camera tricks or stunning vistas. Yet it's one of the consistently well handled elements in the film, certainly as much as the script. For the most part, the camera offers straightforward angles to show what's going on, but we also quite regularly get glimpses of things from Raymond's point of view. Raymond is fascinated with patterns, and quick shots interspersed with the more "narrative" camera work show us the world as he sees it: the abstract shapes of a bridge's arches passing overhead, or the movement of an escalator. It's also worth watching at least some of the credits, which display the photos that Raymond has been taking all throughout his journey.
Rain Man has the level of detail to its story that would suggest that it was based on a novel, if it weren't for the "Best Original Screenplay" Oscar reminding us that it's original to film. Charlie's strained relationship with his father (a character whose shadow looms over the film despite the fact that he never appears, even in a flashback) and his long-lost childhood connection to the "Rain Man" seem natural glimpses into a life filled with important events and character development. The one fault I'd find with Rain Main is that it's a bit too long; toward the middle of the movie, we get several different versions of scenes that convey the same basic story element: Charlie's conflict with Raymond's needs, and his gradual understanding of Raymond. The film would have been a bit more effective if the middle had been tightened up a bit. Still, at 2 hours and 14 minutes, Rain Main is still reasonably well paced.
I've never been a huge fan of Tom Cruise, but in Rain Man I'd say he turns in one of his better performances; Charlie Babbitt is in many ways a real jerk, but he's a three-dimensional character. As we get to know him, we can see what drives him, and his changing relationship with Raymond develops naturally and believably over the course of the film. One interesting element of Cruise's performance is that, given how his character has been portrayed and developed over the course of the film, the ending of the film is not as clear-cut as it might be. There's the overt conclusion, of course: that Charlie has been forever changed by his experience, and that he has a new and lasting bond with Raymond. But given Charlie's mercurial temperament, we might question that conclusion: I think we get a true sense of how the experience has affected (or not) Raymond, but the film leaves us to judge for ourselves whether Charlie will live up to his own words.
Rain Man: Special Edition is a single DVD, packaged in a slim plastic keepcase. For some reason, this keepcase (which has a slightly different cover than the earlier release, and says "Special Edition") also has a plastic slipcase that fits over it. This slipcase is printed with exactly the same information as on the keepcase, with just a few more laudatory quotes, so it's just wasteful packaging. There's no insert.
Rain Man is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and is anamorphically enhanced, as was the earlier release. I did a side-by-side comparison of the Special Edition transfer and the transfer of the earlier bare-bones release, and my conclusion is that the SE offers slightly better image quality. The colors are consistently brighter and more vibrant, giving the film a slightly warmer appearance overall; there's also slightly less noise in the image.
"Slightly better" still ends up being less than impressive, though. Contrast is not handled well at all. Dark areas immediately become solid black, offering little to no detail. The scattered print flaws that appeared in the earlier release are still apparent, as well as some noise. There's also heavy edge enhancement throughout the film. All in all, it's decent but not the improvement I would have hoped for; I'd say that it's not worth upgrading your copy for the new transfer alone.
Rain Man has a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack that does a solid job of capturing this mainly dialogue-driven film. The actors' voices are always clear and natural-sounding, and the music portion of the soundtrack is well balanced with the dialogue. Some surround effects are used, but in a generally subdued manner. As far as I could tell, this sounds identical to the 5.1 track on the earlier release.
A French Dolby 2.0 and Spanish mono soundtrack are also provided, along with optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Rain Man: SE includes as its main bonus material three separate audio commentaries, from director Barry Levinson, and co-writers Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass. All three provide a reasonable level of comments with relatively few silent moments, and some interesting thoughts about the making of the film. However, from a practical standpoint, I'd really rather have seen a single joint commentary track, or a documentary featuring their insights; just how realistic is the idea that you'll find the time (or the motivation) to watch a 134-minute movie three times to get all three perspectives on it?
If you are not a big fan of commentary tracks, there are a few other special features on the DVD, but nothing really outstanding. A six-minute promotional featurette is included, along with a single deleted scene of Raymond in a convenience store. This two-minute scene is interesting, as it's clearly from an earlier cut of the film in which some of the events surrounding this deleted scene were not yet fixed in their final state. For minor features, we also get a trailer for Rain Man, a photo gallery, trailers for Bandits and Dances with Wolves SE, and a list of other MGM releases.
All in all, the bonus material is worthwhile if you are a really devoted fan of the film, but for more casual viewers, all of the "good stuff" of insights about the making of Rain Man are inconveniently located in the over 6 hours of commentaries.
As a film, I'd certainly recommend Rain Man quite highly: it's a nicely done film that earned four well-deserved Academy Awards. The Special Edition treatment of the film, though, leaves me somewhat less impressed. The image quality is very slightly better than in the first release, but it's still not what I'd have expected or hoped for, with poor contrast and heavy edge enhancement as its main problems. The bonus material is mainly in the form of commentaries, which will appeal mainly to really devoted fans of the film, and a few minor features; I'd have hoped for more here as well. All in all, I'll give this film a strong "recommended": it's a film well worth seeing, and if you don't already own a copy, the SE is the better choice, but if you already own the earlier release, the only real reason to upgrade would be if you want the audio commentaries.