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‘Lorenzo’s Oil’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 15, 1993

An arduous family drama from George Miller, "Lorenzo's Oil" is curiously inert considering the director built his reputation on the hellbent adventures of "Mad Max." This medical detective story about a desperately ill child must have stirred up the doctor in Miller, himself an MD, because it's as meticulously detailed as a medical journal entry and nearly as pedantic. Indeed, it suffers from nearly as many infirmities as Lorenzo Odone, who inherits a rare degenerative nerve disease from his mother.

Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte star in the true story of Michaela and Augusto Odone, an Irish American linguist and an Italian banker who find a cure for their 5-year-old's progressively more debilitating condition. After several trial programs fail, the Odones begin their own exhaustive studies of adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), which lead to the first of three breakthroughs in the treatment of the disease. They organize conferences, raise money and strong-arm chemical companies into manufacturing the two oils that halt the awful progress of the disease. But for Lorenzo, paralyzed and profoundly unresponsive, it's almost too late.

Zack O'Malley Greenburg, an adorable moppet, makes his acting debut as Lorenzo, a sweet child whose charm and courage carries the early part of the movie, but that is lost as he becomes unable to speak or move. Increasingly the plot revolves around Augusto's research at the National Institutes of Health and Michaela's bedside ministrations. Six handicapped children of various ages play the bedridden Lorenzo, who cannot swallow his own saliva at the nadir of the story. Though Augusto wonders if they are doing the right thing for Lorenzo, Michaela refuses to entertain questions on the quality of his life.

It's not easy spending two hours and 15 minutes with Michaela, a temperamental redhead played at full throttle by Sarandon. She is the Uebermother, more ferocious even than Ripley in "Aliens," eating up rude nurses, smug doctors and complacent ALD parents. The carrier of the defective ALD gene (which is passed only from mother to son), she seems driven not only by her guilt but her selfishness. It's an admirable performance matched only in intensity by Nolte, whose Italian accent, unfortunately, is abominable. He sounds like Father Guido Sarducci with heartburn.

"Lorenzo's Oil," which is further encumbered by its funereal pacing and woebegone score, is definitely a remarkable story, but as told by Miller it isn't really an uplifting one. After all Lorenzo's suffering, he lies there still and silent, a 14-year-old prisoner waiting for another medical miracle.

"Lorenzo's Oil" is rated PG-13 for its mature subject matter.

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