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Film Review: Awakenings

Awakenings (1990; Directed by Penny Marshall)

Any conscientious movie buff has seen their fair share of that specific breed of inspirational films featuring a very definite trope. I refer to the familiar narrative of the detached, jaded, self-involved or otherwise socially maladapted upper-middle-class citizen of Western democratic capitalism taken out of their comfort zone into a more “primitive” foreign milieu. Through exposure to a simpler (read: more deprived or poverty-stricken) way of life and often to the folk wisdom of a noble savage representative of this more basic existence, the spoiled First-Worlder learns to appreciate the basic stuff of life and disregard the quest for commodities and status distinctions mandated by the American capitalist order. Although the fundamental inequities and injustices of the Developing World are never rectified and rarely even addressed and often the shaman figure does not survive the process of the Western subject’s enlightenment, the subject’s social re-education is accomplished and that it what is important.

Penny Marshall’s Awakenings is based on Oliver Sachs’ alternately clinical and empathetic chronicle of the life experiences of mental ward patients suffering from enchephalitis lethargica and his attempts to draw them out of their catatonic state through therapy and pharmaceutical treatment. It adapts Sachs’ memoir as an often sentimentalized fable on the failing courage of the human spirit and the determined liberal-humanist progressivism of the medical establishment (or of a few empathetic saints in the midst of smug careerists in those ranks, at least). But more than that, it renders the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to permanently awaken these catatonic patients as a limited success as an awakening of the internalized man who tried to save them from the paralysis of their own minds. It is the post-colonial narrative described above, but with the mentally ill substituted for dark-skinned foreigners of inspiring dignity.

It’s a tragic sacrifice to soppy Hollywood convention, not least because it wastes two very strong lead performances. The now-late Robin Williams, as Sachs proxy Dr. Malcolm Sayer, plays an awkward, lonely, but ultimately big-hearted man of science learning to edge out of the world of labs and specimens to connect to people. It’s especially eerie watching the solitary Sayer spend sad evenings at home alone playing the piano and studying botanical literature, knowing how Williams left the world. Something deep inside of him was being channeled in roles like this, and he is subtly moving to watch. Robert De Niro’s Oscar-nominated inhabiting of Sayer’s star patient Leonard Lowe got the Oscar nomination love and is wonderfully detailed and observed. Who would have predicted, in 1990, how few of these rich, nuanced, emotive De Niro performances we had left to watch?

Awakenings is blessed with these fine turns from fine actors and much potentially resonant material, especially as concerns patients awakening in the late 1960s from 40-year catatonic states to find a world very much changed. Not all of this is squandered, but enough of it is to engender a sense of disappointment. For a movie about realizing that life is meant to be lived to the fullest, Awakenings does not awaken to its own potential nearly often enough.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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