The Good: Great performances, Engaging story, Interesting characters
The Bad: No DVD bonus features
The Basics: Smart, heartwarming and enduring over multiple viewings, Awakenings is a great Robin Williams/Robert De Niro film that was underrated when it was first released.
Sometimes, my wife sits me down for a movie with the words “This is a movie I think you're really going to like” and I smile politely and set my jaw and hope at the end she won't ask “What did you think?” In the case of Awakenings, though, I surprised her by enjoying it even more than she thought I would. In the midst of watching Best Picture Oscar winners on a daily basis, we stopped and watch Awakenings and I was not surprised that it was a contender for the Best Picture. In fact, the only real surprise for me was that Robert De Niro’s performance in Awakenings did not win the Academy Award when Dustin Hoffman's similar role in Rain Man (reviewed here!) did. That said, Awakenings is a gem of a film that is far too often overlooked by critics and those looking at great films of the 1990s.
There are two further notes before getting into the meat of the review. The first is that this is an adaptation of a book by Oliver Sachs. This is a review of the film Awakenings, not the book, and as I have not read the book, there shall be no comparisons. I mention this because often in adaptations, there are moments fans will say, "Yes, but in the book . . ." and this is not that. This is just the film. Also, my wife's copy of the DVD was the original DVD release, which featured nothing. Subsequent DVD releases of Awakenings, especially with a Blu Ray release if there is one, are likely to have some bonus features.
Dr. Malcolm Sayer is a research scientist who is both incredibly smart and rather shy. In 1969, he finds himself applying for a job at a hospital, which puts him in contact with people, a condition that makes him much more uncomfortable than dealing with earthworms or doing hard science. Despite being flirted with by the head nurse, Eleanor, he finds himself obliviously running the chronic ward of the hospital where patients are largely comatose and non-responsive. However, as he begins going through the case histories of all of his patients, he discovers a common thread: atypical encephalitis reactions. Reasoning that the symptoms his patients display - some are mobile, but stop moving when the environment changes, most are immobile, but will react to things like pens being dropped or a ball being thrown at them - are like a super-accelerated form of Parkinson's Disease, Sayer lobbies to put the ward on an experimental, but very effective, Parkinson's medication.
With the consent of the aged Mrs. Lowe, Sayer's patient, Leonard Lowe is put on the medication and soon thereafter, he responds, coming out of his comatose state. As Leopard's health improves, Sayer studies the phenomenon and the hospital lobbies for donations to get the rest of the ward freed from their unresponsive bodies. But just as the phenomenon begins to offer Leonard and his companions a real chance at life, a complication ensues and threatens all of Dr. Sayer's work!
Awakenings is one of those touching tear-jerker movies that my partner absolutely hates, so it is something of a surprise that it was in her collection, not mine. The character study puts two dynamic characters on compelling arcs. Leonard Lowe becomes the focus of the question, "What if you lost thirty years of your life and awoke to a whole new world?" But rather than belabor that question (the answer is illustrated from the moment Dr. Sayer brings him out of his near-paralysis) it becomes an arc wherein the patient begins to fight for the inherent rights he believes he should have, including the right to be free from his doting mother. Ironically, one of the film's most heartwrenching moments comes when Leonard asserts his will to spend time with a young woman who keeps visiting the hospital and must ask his doting mother (who has spent her life waiting on Leonard) to leave him alone.
Fortunately, the film is not a melodrama and moments like that resonate well with viewers because they "read" as very real, even if they are difficult to watch. This also helps make the Sayer character arc more palatable. With a reclusive character like Dr. Sayer, viewers have to figure the character arc will either be about the character growing and changing from the experiences or having his seclusion challenged only to return to it (there's pretty much only two arcs for that type character). Awakenings is arguably about Dr. Sayer's awakening to notice the importance of little moments in life and coming to appreciate the people who surround him. As a result, it is That Type Of Film when his relationship with Leonard teaches him to notice and appreciate Eleanor.
What saves Awakenings from falling into a particularly droll category of schmaltz is the caliber of the performances. While Robin Williams is now fairly well known for his ability to pull dramatic roles (usually by growing a beard and not smiling much), Awakenings comes at a point in his career where this was still a departure for him. Previously known almost exclusively for his comedic range, Williams's dramatic ability is tested and there is not a moment when Williams is not playing the stage comedic version of Robin Williams or the more humorous incarnation of him even breaks out. So, he never lets his facade slip into any form of schtick, as he did in, for example, Man Of The Year. Instead, he paints Dr. Sayer as compassionate, nervous, shy and often oblivious and he is convincing in every one of his scenes.
Williams is supported by a notable supporting cast, led by Julie Kavner as Eleanor. Ruth Nelson (whom I am fairly sure I have not seen in anything else) gives a great supporting role as Mrs. Lowe. John Heard and Bradley Whitford have parts as well and Heard has a great presence opposite Williams as Dr. Kaufman.
But from the moment Robert De Niro appears on screen, he rules Awakenings, stealing every scene. A remarkably physical role for De Niro, he presents a fragile and broken body in some of the movie's most difficult moments to watch. At the same time, he has a great portrayal of glee in his character's eyes when he first manages to speak. De Niro earns his paycheck in this film as I can honestly say I've never seen him play a role like this in any other work.
It is also worth noting that the casting is excellent such that the child actor playing the young Leonard actually looks like Robert De Niro! That level of attention to detail makes for a wonderful film. Outside minor issues, like a fairly stagnant sensibility with the camerawork, Awakenings is very close to perfect. Anyone looking for a strong human drama will enjoy it.
For other films with medical issues, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Million Dollar Baby
i am sam
For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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