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Awakenings
1990 - PG-13 - 121 Mins.
Director: Penny Marshall
Producer: Walter F. Parkes
Written By: Steven Zaillian
Starring: Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, Julie Kavner, John Heard, Penelope Ann Miller
Review by: John Ulmer
   
"How do you feel?"
"My parents are dead. My wife is in an institution. My son has disappeared out west, somewhere. I feel old and I feel swindled. That's how I feel."

"Awakenings" is another story from Penny Marshall ("Big") about a young boy who falls asleep one night and wakes up a grown man. The twist this time is that it's a true story--"Awakenings" details the events that took place in the Bronx in 1969, when Leonard Lowe -- a thirty-year catatonic -- suddenly...awoke.

Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) believes that the catatonics he works around all day long are still alive on the inside, and not merely shells -- people who are unable to control their bodies but are still able to control their thoughts. He decides to try giving the patients doses of medicine intended for sufferers of Parkinson's disease. To his amazement, the first test subject -- Leonard (Robert De Niro) -- wakes up in the middle of the night.

"I was gone for a long time. I'm back."

The movie is loosely based on true events of an encephalitis epidemic that spread across New York City. It sent the victims into a deep catatonic state for the rest of their lives. The film is based on the work of author/neurologist Oliver Sacks, who used the drug L-DOPA, for Parkinson's patients, on the catatonics. To his surprise they began to "wake up" again, but soon after-effects of the drug began to kick in. Eventually, Sacks' patients slipped back into their old states again. But during the time they were able to explore the world once more, they felt free -- and Robert De Niro captures the essence of that freedom very well in "Awakenings."

Although I wasn't a very big fan of "Big," it did seem to capture the awe of adulthood and childhood yearning. "Awakenings" isn't a comedy like "Big" was but, as Leonard roams the streets of the Bronx visiting his school, and areas where he used to hang out with his friends, it exudes the same sort of message, and asks us: If you went to bed as a child and woke up an adult, what would you do?

De Niro and Williams give terrific performances (albeit forgettable compared to past roles) and are supported by a top-notch cast including Julie Kavner (the voice of Marge Simpson) and John Heard ("Home Alone"). Marshall's directorial style is a bit schmaltzy sometimes but overall doesn't hurt the flow of the film.

After an excellent opening credits sequence, the movie slides into mediocrity. It simply is unable to sustain interest while being burdened with scientific accuracy and terminology. But the ending redeems everything. It's occasionally too heavy on the Spielbergian-esque schmaltz as a tear-jerker but as long as you don't expect a masterpiece, "Awakenings" is an entertaining film that serves its purpose.
 
Movie Guru Rating
Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not.
  3 out of 5 stars

 
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