'Awakenings' is a poignant mix of sadness and laughter


January 11, 1991|By Lou Cedrone

DON'T MAKE the mistake of assuming that ''Awakenings'' is a comedy. It would be natural to do so. Penny Marshall directed, and Robin Williams and Robert De Niro co-star. Those names would suggest comedy.

The new film does have laughs, but primarily, it is an adroit mixture of comedy and pathos, an almost totally satisfying experience, one that is neither upper nor downer. The story has been romanticized, but allowances can be made.

''Awakenings'' is based on a book written in 1973 by Oliver Sacks, a doctor who found himself working at a hospital in the Bronx in the late '60s. Among his patients were a group of people who seemed to be catatonic. They simply sat and stared. They did, however, respond to certain stimuli, which Sacks found interesting enough to investigate.

When he did, he discovered that all these patients were post-encephalitic, victims of an epidemic that took place in the '20s. Aware that a new drug, L-DOPA, which was used to treat victims of Parkinson's Disease, was available, he decided to treat these people with the drug.

Almost all came out of their trances, at least for a time. Some were ''cured'' for at least two years. Some returned to consciousness for periods of less than that.

Sacks' book was a collection of case studies. The movie focuses on one patient, a man who had come down with the sickness when he was little more than a boy. In time, he was committed to the institution and remained there, mute and out of it until Sacks administered the drug.

De Niro plays the patient, and Williams is the physician who brings him back to consciousness. You can see either of these men in either of these roles, but because De Niro had first choice, he is the patient. It is a rather remarkable performance. Though Leonard (De Niro) is not as wasted as someone might be after being bedridden so long, he is completely convincing in every other area.

Williams is every bit as good. As Dr. Sayer, he is gentle, compassionate and just a little bit mousy.

John Heard is the director of the hospital, a man who doesn't think Sayer's experiments will amount to anything but is willing to go along with the experiment.

Julie Kavner is a nurse, Penelope Ann Miller is a young woman who befriends Leonard when she comes to visit her father at the hospital, and Anne Meara is one of the patients who, after returning to ''life'' after so many years, wants to run as much as she can.

The scenes in which the patients return to consciousness are as funny as they are sad. One man learns that his wife is dead and his children are dispersed. A woman, taken sick when she was 22, doesn't know how to accept the fact that she is now in her '60s.

''Awakenings'' includes scenes that will make you laugh. It also includes some that will have you close to tears. It is that kind of movie, one that has been lovingly tuned by Marshall, who knew what she wanted and got it.

''Awakenings'' opens here today.


**** A man, in a stupor for some 30 years, returns to consciousness after being treated with a new drug.

CAST: Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, Julie Kavner, Ruth Nelson, John Heard, Penelope Anne Miller, Anne Meara, Richard Libertini

DIRECTOR: Penny Marshall

RATING: PG-13 (language)


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