DRAMA-RAMA 'Awakenings' tops weekend menu of high-minded films

January 11, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Awakenings'

Starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

Directed by Penny Marshall.

Released by Columbia.

Rated PG-13.

*** 1/2 "Awakenings" is about a man who goes to sleep one night and leaves a wake-up call not for the next morning but the next decade.

Dramatizing a medical mystery story out of neurologist Oliver Sacks' book of the same title, it watches as a concerned young doctor manages to coax a ward of encephalitis victims out of their perpetual snoozes and back to a life of sorts.

Robin Williams, at his most muted, plays a vaguely fictionalized version of Sacks, here called Dr. Malcolm Sayers, a neurological researcher with a profound horror of actual life and real people. When he applies for a job in a Bronx neurological hospital for chronic cases, he assumes he'll be locked in a lab, measuring chemical levels in rat brains.

But he's quickly thrown into the bedlam of the most profoundly damaged human brains collected in a single space on earth. And those are the other doctors! The inmates seem benevolent, most of them moping around in slow-motion as if the radio stations in their heads are receiving music from a different solar system. Then he discovers the sleepers.

This is a colony of late middle-aged people who contracted encephalitis in the late '20s and '30s and gradually yielded their franchise on consciousness. They appear to be forever sealed off in a state of semi-paralysis, statues in flesh with slack faces and atrophied musculature and barely flickering chests. Perhaps because they metaphorically represent his dozing emotional life, the doctor is weirdly attracted to them, where a previous generation of physicians have let the sleeping people sit.

He begins to notice small things, however. They haven't lost their reflexes, and can catch balls thrown to them. When addressed or touched, the sleepers respond, if only in the language of spikes on a polygraph, telling a truth that the doctor begins to suspect cannot be denied: that in some form or shape, they live in their casks; they have identities.

Penny Marshall's film is best as it chronicles the increasingly obsessed Sayers' attempts to break through to the sleepers, particularly his realization that their condition is like a Parkinson's tremor carried to the logical extreme of a total body lockup: thus he tries an experimental drug called L-DOPA that has been shown to relieve Parkinson's trembling. And thus the sleepers awake.

Simply conceived as melodrama, "Awakenings" has a primal power that cannot be denied; its theme, after all, is profoundly moving -- liberation. It's about being set free after an unjust imprisonment from which, until that instant, there had been no appeal and no release.

Of the tribe of newly wakened, Robert De Niro is the most moving, though the most conventionally imagined. He pops to life as an irrepressible optimist, less a man who's had his life stolen by rogue germs than a visitor to a small planet. Everything he sees delights him and he carries with him Lear's message: Ripeness is all. Or, being awake is better than being asleep. Or, let's boogie.

The screenplay, by Steven Zaillian, dithers somewhat, inventing for him a quick relationship with Penelope Ann Miller. It sentimentalizes also by not confronting the notion that however old his body may be, his mind would have to be the age he went to sleep, meaning that he's still in his teens. And it gives him the sprightly step of a leprechaun rather than the decrepit stagger of a man who hasn't walked in three decades.

But "Awakenings" regains its squandered power when it does face one truth: nothing is forever. The patients, all too quickly and very painfully, discover that their freedom was merely a parole and as they develop a tolerance to L-DOPA its magic effects wear out. The tremors begin to steal over them, and in this last and most tragic passage, De Niro is able to document the fury of a man fighting the villainy of his own body. He has a tour de force of physical acting that is truly extraordinary and moving: a man clinging to his humanity as his own rioting muscles are turning him so grotesque that their very vibrations will expel him from the social condition.

In its heart of hearts, "Awakenings" shares the flaws of the typical movie about minorities -- it turns on a nonmember's growth while among them, and it celebrates his education at their expense -- but at the same time it's so moving and the performances are so convincing, you won't care. I certainly didn't.

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