PUT A MOVIE featuring a physically or mentally disabled character in front of a moviegoer who cries at the drop of a hat and you're guaranteed a flash flood, an ocean, a tsunami of tears.
If you go to "Awakenings," a drama about patients suffering from post-encephalitic sleeping sickness, you'll need rubber soles -- not necessarily because you'll be doing the crying. Those other weepers in the audience -- and they know who they are -- will not leave this movie dry-eyed.
Director Penny Marshall's movie, based on the real-life research of author/neurologist Oliver Sacks, has all the appropriate poignant provocations. It has sad parts, happy parts and sad parts again, all modulated to Academy-sweeping effect, with two assured performances from Robin Williams as a taciturn doctor and Robert De Niro as the patient he revives from a 30-year state of catatonia.
But knee-jerk tears aside, there's nothing tremendously special. It's very watchable (thanks almost entirely to Williams and De Niro), but it doesn't stand out. It's steps behind "My Left Foot," for instance, which is not to say the film is badly done; it's just decently done.
Marshall covers the medical highlights with made-for-TV speed. Williams makes diagnostic breakthroughs with the propulsion of, say, a San Francisco 49er drive against a team of Ping-Pong players. Hired as a doctor at a hospital in the Bronx, the neurologist tries to find out why the patients (misdiagnosed as atypical schizophrenics and hysterics) have been catatonic for years.
He hears about L-dopa, a drug used mainly for Parkinsonism sufferers, and experiments with De Niro. After increased dosage, the patient comes to life for the first time since childhood. With the begrudging assent of hospital superior John Heard, Williams administers to the whole ward and the inmates respond to the treatment with similar success. Suddenly the hospital is alive like never before.
Where this leads is for you to discover, but, suffice it to say, the movie pulls out all the sad stops. At the risk of giving things away, De Niro pulls out all the alarming stops, reaching an awesome zenith late in the movie. But although his efforts (and Williams's) make for many throat-gulping, misty-eyed moments, they aren't enough to launch the movie completely.
Marshall's strength, which is not packing a sustained, tragic punch, shows itself with the comedic moments -- undoubtedly thanks to her many sitcom seasons. There's a large woman patient called Waheeda, for example, who screams hysterically at the sight of pens. When Williams bursts into a room at one point and sees her, he automatically covers his top pocket. But when nurse Julie Kavner (another former TV being) delivers the main Message (life, she tells Williams, is "given and taken away from all of us"), it doesn't sound like the climactic point of a great movie. It sounds more like a line from one of the more sensitive episodes of "Laverne and Shirley."
AWAKENINGS (PG-13) -- Area theaters.