If you programmed a computer to come up with a movie that would win Oscars, the result might look something like Penny Marshall’s Awakenings. Based on the 1973 book by psychiatrist Oliver Sacks, this inspirational drama, which is set in 1969, is about a gifted but pathologically shy neurologist, Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams), who gets a job looking after patients at Bainbridge Hospital, a chronic-care facility for people with profound neurological disorders. Once there, he discovers a peculiar pattern among many of the patients: They just sit staring blankly, as though made of stone — yet if he throws a tennis ball at one of them, he or she will reach out instinctively and catch it.
Sayer senses that these specimens of the living dead are, in fact, completely alive inside; he just has to reach them. Digging into the files, he discovers that they all suffered bouts of encephalitis during an epidemic of that crippling brain fever in the ’20s. Hypothesizing that their current state is like an extreme version of Parkinson’s disease (it’s as if they had each been ”frozen” in the middle of a Parkinsonian tremor), he fights for the right to treat them with a new, experimental drug called L-dopa that is being tested for Parkinson’s patients.
Sayer first tries the drug on Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro), a middle-aged man who has been in this vegetative state since he was a boy. The result is a miracle: Leonard wakes up and appears fully normal. The drug works on the other patients too, and soon Sayer is presiding over an entire ward of jubilant Rip Van Winkles. But the miracle doesn’t last. Though Leonard and the others spend several months rediscovering the world, it’s not long before the drug’s effects begin to wear off. Suddenly, we’re watching the story of human beings who face the prospect of once again turning into statues.
With a true story this eerie and compelling, and with a cast this talented, Awakenings could hardly be a washout. Yet what’s remarkable is how little of it seems authentic. Though rooted in fact, the movie feels like a synthetically engineered mishmash of Rain Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and — most prominently — Charly, the 1968 fantasy in which Cliff Robertson played a retarded man who gains and then loses a genius-level IQ. Like Charly, Awakenings has no edge. The drama in any given scene is subsumed by the movie’s strenuous efforts to tug at your heartstrings.
What saves the picture is the acting. Williams plays Dr. Sayer as a nerd with a closeted ego, and though the character is too saintly for comfort, Williams does some of his most convincing screen work. For once, his addled, remote-control mind doesn’t seem inappropriate to the character he’s playing. That mind is what makes Sayer both a nervous wreck and a great scientist. Polite, even harmless, on the outside, he’s never at rest internally.
Robert De Niro is at his most emotionally eloquent playing inarticulate characters, and though his performance as Leonard starts out a little too cute, it grows more daring as the movie progresses. One of the central weaknesses of Awakenings is that it fails to dramatize the fact that Leonard — unlike some of the other patients — never had a chance to become an adult. The character as written doesn’t have a boy’s mind; from the moment he wakes up, he just seems like an overly gentle man. De Niro, though, gives him a winning ingenuousness, and in the second half, when Leonard starts losing control over his face and body and collapsing into frenzied contortions, the performance attains a startling power. Anger is what has always made De Niro’s acting come alive. What he shows us beneath the agonized gestures is the anger — the humiliation — Leonard feels at suddenly becoming a freak.
There’s a raw, subversive element in De Niro’s performance: He doesn’t shrink from letting Leonard seem grotesque. Yet Awakenings, unlike the infinitely superior Rain Man, isn’t really built around the quirkiness of its lead character. The movie views Leonard piously; it turns him into an icon of ”feeling.” And so even if you’re held (as I was) by the acting, you may find yourself fighting the film’s design. It reflects a certain lack of faith in your audience to take a performance as authentic as De Niro’s and reduce it to the level of a glorified reach-out-and-touch-someone commercial. B