Awakenings (1990)

(On Cable TV, May 2017) I’m not sure what I was expecting from Awakenings—seeing Robin Williams as a doctor, maybe something along the lines of Patch Adams? What I did get was more than expected. The first half of Awakenings is good without being particularly striking: Here are patients immobilized by a rare disease; here’s an unconventional doctor trying a new radical therapy to improve their condition and break them out of their catatonia. When, against all odds, it works, it’s the film’s big triumphant moment: People are free to live again, experience the world and blossom against all odds. The film’s real kicker, however, happens when the therapy stops being effective, and the newly awakened patients are dragged back in catatonia. It does give to Awakenings an efficient dose of wistfulness, and a stronger “experience life before it’s taken away from you” message. Robin Williams is good and not overbearing in a more serious role than usual, while Robert de Niro turns in a respectable performance as a patient who comes out of catatonia before facing the prospect of sinking back into it. Awakenings may be best approached with low expectations—it’s not a great movie, but it’s noteworthy and far from being as sappy as it could have been. It’s not comfortable and works better because of it.

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