Rain Man (DVD)
During the long development process that left 1988's Rain Man hobbling toward Oscar glory, the production cycled through one A-list director after another, starting with Martin Brest (who reheated the premise to slightly less acclaim in Gigli) and ending with Barry Levinson, who added some much-needed levity to the proceedings. In between was Steven Spielberg, who persuaded co-writer Ronald Bass to change Dustin Hoffman's character from the retarded savant of the original drafts to an autistic savant, a makeover akin to a sex-change operation. As ever, Spielberg's suggestion was based on sound dramatic instincts: A warm, responsive, ingratiating retarded person would have melted hearts too easily, softening a road movie that was already flabby in the middle. Those with autism, by contrast, remain stubbornly within their own heads, impenetrable save for the brief flickers of life that appear at the screenwriter's discretion. But the change underlines a common problem with movies about the afflicted, who are usually reduced to plot devices–brick walls for ricocheted conflicts, or glowing beacons that illuminate the underlying decency of flawed heroes. In Rain Man, the flawed hero is played by Tom Cruise at his most inscrutable; watching him interact with Hoffman's panoply of Method tics is akin to watching two rocks rubbing against each other, trying to start a fire. First seen beckoning an imported Ferrari down from the heavens, Cruise stars as a materialistic L.A. car dealer who returns home to Cincinnati after his estranged father's death. Left out of the $3 million estate that he believes is his birthright, Cruise discovers that the money was bequeathed to a local institution, where caretakers look after the autistic older brother (Hoffman) that Cruise never knew he had. Greedy for his half of the inheritance, Cruise kidnaps Hoffman and drives cross-country in a vintage Buick convertible, threatening a custody battle if he doesn't get what's coming to him. In the trickier of the two roles, Cruise leans on his movie-star charisma to overcome a near-irredeemable jerk of a character, but Valeria Golino, as his sweet, spunky girlfriend, does a better job of humanizing him than he does. Meanwhile, Hoffman must have used the years of production limbo to add more quirks to his repertoire: In addition to the verbal fillips ("I'm an excellent driver"), the Abbott & Costello "Who's on first?" routine, and the obsession with Judge Wapner, Hoffman's list of demands–toothpicks for eating, maple syrup on the table before the pancakes are served, orange soda (room temperature), and boxer shorts from Kmart, among others–read like contractual riders for a pampered star. It's a bravura performance in all the wrong ways, because it calls attention to its own technique, yielding nothing beyond Hoffman's glassy-eyed entrancement. And with Cruise raging and pleading and emoting, the two don't seem remotely related, as characters or as actors. The two-DVD edition features an imposing three separate commentary tracks: a yawner by Levinson, and two riveting contributions from screenwriters Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow, who worked at different phases of the process. At one point, Morrow tells a hilarious story in which the studio heads insist that he throw some action into the middle of the movie. For obvious reasons, the scene in which Hoffman and Cruise flee from survivalists didn't make subsequent drafts, but the efforts of many still never found a way to bring this road movie to life.