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Saturday, 28 May 2016

Retro Movie Review: Awakenings (1990) #RobinWilliams

Cast: Robin Williams, Robert De Niro, Julie Kavner, Penelope Ann Miller, John Heard 
Genre: Drama
Estimated Total Gross: over $51 million 

Trivia: Apparently, this is one of Robin Williams's favourite films

Plot: The victims of an encephalitis epidemic many years ago have been catatonic ever since, but now a new drug offers the prospect of reviving them

'A Masterful Performance By Williams That Went Unnoticed By Many'

Based on a real-life story by Oliver Sacks, the screenplay for this film was adapted from a book & directed by Penny Marshall, the female director who also gave us A League of its Own, Big, Jumpin' Jack Flash & The Preacher's Wife

Awakenings was led by two actors, whose forenames begin with 'R': Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. Both Robin and Robert had some success during the 1980s, but the choice to cast them in this film certainly raised a few eyebrows, not to mention question marks.

And yet whatever preconceptions, doubts people had about these two were firmly laid to rest after seeing this movie. Set in Brooklyn in 1969, Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) is a neurologist, who is very dedicated and hard-working in his profession but also he is humble, shy and introverted as well. He is softly spoken, but with a deep desire, Sayer always goes out of his way to help people and other patients. And that is all despite never having treated a patient before. In working with Leonard (Robert De Niro), he discovers a drug in L-Dopa and with this drug, he uses it to awaken patients in a catatonic and vegetative state - hence the title of the film, Awakenings.

But just when you think that everything turns out well, the drug only acts as a temporary solution to a somewhat permanent problem and thus, also it has some negative side-effects, with Leonard who eventually starts to feel the repercussions of it. 

The movie isn't exactly feel good throughout, but neither would I say it is dark and depressing. If anything, Awakenings is a powerful, moving tale; a lighter 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' with a narrative that has a positive and enlightening spin to it. If you thought as English professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams turned in his only exceptional performance in a dramatic feature film, then it is most likely you have never seen or watched Awakenings. Because his performance as Malcolm was beyond exceptional and extraordinary. Robin Williams began the 1980s by playing the famous cartoon character, Popeye and during the 1990s, he kicked off this decade by playing slightly more complex characters in Joey O' Brien in comedy, Cadillac Man and this effort as Dr Malcolm Sayer. 

Despite Robin Williams being second-billed to De Niro, in fact, right from the beginning Dr Malcolm Sayer is the central focus of almost every scene he is in, in Awakenings. This is arguably the first real movie where we get to see Robin's introverted side and of him playing it straight. Usually, in other roles, we see so much of him being a funny and happy guy, acting a fool in comedy films. But here in Awakenings, you can see in his eyes, facial expressions and the dialogue he utters as Malcolm how successfully he nailed his portrayal as his character with complete dedication and conviction. He goes about it in an almost un-Robin Williams way and very grounded it is too and he doesn't overplay it. Robin slotted into the Malcolm Sayer role perfectly. It just shows again and again how brilliant a dramatic actor Robin Williams was and is with a tight-knit, well-written script & in playing a protagonist that has such good characterisation. 

Movie-wise, the film's pacing is very, very slow and at 2 hours it can be quite a slog, especially when it doesn't have as many exciting moments to sustain audience interest. It is one of those movies where you have to pay close attention to every single detail and thing that is being mentioned because otherwise, you will lose track of what is going on. However, one of the things I liked about this film is the discussion about the meaning of life, which didn't descend into an overly religious speech or sentiment. What is the meaning of life? Joy? Wonderment? Freedom? Gift? I'd say it is all of the above and more. Because the film is set in a hospital, we often ponder about our existence and what our contribution is to society, to the world as human beings. But alas, I am not going to delve too deep into this one... 

Awakenings is certainly one of those Robin Williams movies/projects that are rarely talked about - and still, it is as highly acclaimed as The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting and The World According to Garp in every particular aspect. It makes you look at life from a different outlook, in a more optimistic frame of mind. Humanity has never looked as bright & hopeful as it is in Awakenings

Everyone in this film delivers a great performance throughout. Additionally, it is one of those films where most of the characters are likeable and of whom have good intentions. The movie also has its sad & profound moments too, it's light and touching sometimes: the moment where Malcolm finally realises that the drug has had the opposite effect on Leonard and witnesses him behaving uncontrollably and being helpless in doing anything to kerb it, was despairing and I really empathised for him. And although the ending was in a way sad, the movie was so hopeful, positive and encouraging in a way that makes it bring tears to your eyes almost. 

Not once throughout the entire 2 hours does the film descend into schmaltz; there is a subtlety that underlies Awakenings that doesn't descend into mawkish overly sentimental cringe and drivel, which would have easily taken away from the film. There are layers of depth, there are some equally pleasant and positive moments and scenes that also touches your heart and soul & gives us hope. Life is and can never be perfect, but we must make the most out of it in a positive way & remain optimistic. Penny Marshall lends her deftest touch and presents an intimate insight in a medical drama that is uncanny & distinct, but also it still remains utterly absorbing at the same time, due to the turns of Williams and De Niro. 

Robin Williams truly asserts himself here as Malcolm Sayer: in my view, his performance thoroughly outshines that of Patch Adams, his other on-screen character role where he also plays a doctor, this time named Patch Adams, which is also the self-titled 1998 movie.

This is Robin Williams and Robert De Niro giving their best onscreen movie turns, up until their unfortunate implosion during the mid-2000s and beyond, when their careers took a turn for the worst. 

Favourite Robin Williams Character Lines:

- I'm sorry if you were right, I would agree with you

- .... that the human spirit is more powerful than any drug - and THAT is what needs to be nourished: with work, play, friendship, family. These are the things that matter

- How kind is it to give life, only to take it away?

- With work, play, friendship, family. These are the things that matter. This is what we'd forgotten.

- What he's saying though is right though. We don't really know how to live


Pros +

- Likeable characters

- Outstanding performances by Robert de Niro and Robin Williams especially; everyone else was great as well

- A heartfelt and feel-good story that is grounded and also satisfying

- Thought-provoking and enlightening 

- Tightly well-written screenplay 

- The discussion about the meaning of life and human existence without being preachy

Cons -

- The pace of the film is very slow, or be it too slow  

Final Verdict: 

Awakenings was never destined to be a box-office smash, but do not let that deter you from seeing this movie. It is utterly thought-provoking with moments of emotional and sentimental - though not too overly sentimental purity and depth-laden throughout. One of the quotes uttered by Malcolm still resonates with me and with everyone else when he asks the question: ''How Kind Is It To Give Life...Only To Take It Away Again?''. It is a question that not only should we ask of ourselves, but to also give it some thought, as well. 

Culminating in a masterful performance by Robin Williams that went unnoticed by many, it truly is an enlightening movie experience you have to see for yourself.  

*score last updated: 16 January 2018*


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