'Algernon': Of Mouse And Man
CBS Offers Modine In a Soppy Remake
By Tom Shales
The standard advice for a movie like "Algernon" is to lay in a large supply of tissues to deal with the expected torrent of tears evoked by the film. A better use for your Kleenex, Scotties or Puffs would be to tape them on the screen so as to obliterate the picture, a bit like hanging garlic in the doorway to keep vampires away. But of course there are far easier ways to avoid the film--which airs, if you must know, at 9 tonight on Channel 9.
In "Charly," released in 1968, Cliff Robertson played a supposedly adorable retarded man named Charlie Gordon who couldn't spell his first name but whom everybody loved for his flamboyant good nature. Frequently the butt of humiliating practical jokes at the bakery where he worked, he'd laugh like a hyena when tricked into revealing his own stupidity. He was sort of a mental defective's Uncle Tom.
Along comes a scientist with an experimental operation. He's got his eyes on our boy, and soon he's picking Charlie's brain, literally. After recuperating, Charlie not only shows no traces of retardation, he's a damn genius besides, quoting poets and solving complicated math problems. Unfortunately, he isn't trained to perform "Puttin' On the Ritz" the way the reformed monster was in Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder's riotous classic, "Young Frankenstein" (1974). But a scene in which Charlie faces an audience of scientists to show off his new intelligence does evoke memories of Brooks's madcap masterpiece.
Just before the scientists' convention (or is it a Mad Scientists Convention?), Charlie learns some very bad news: The miraculous effect on his cranium is only temporary. He's doomed to dumbness again. Science has used him the way a kid might use a toy, enjoying it for a while, then throwing it away when the fun wears off.
Mean science! Bad science! Naughty, naughty science!
Written by John Pielmeier and directed by Jeff Bleckner, "Flowers for Algernon" reinstates the title of the original source material, a short novel by Daniel Keyes, but otherwise follows the same plot path as the first film. Robertson, who won an Oscar for playing the human guinea pig in the '68 movie (after an aggressive vote-for-me campaign that is still considered a model of shamelessness), has been replaced with Matthew Modine, who specializes in oddball heroes.
Modine, sexless and lanky and likable, plays the part with fewer hammy, Spammy histrionics, though even he has trouble with some of Charlie's seemingly unmotivated mood swings, like the fit pitched in front of the assembled scientists. "The mind without the heart isn't worth a damn!" he shouts to Dr. Strauss, conveniently summarizing what is apparently the message of the picture, then and now.
The Algernon of the title is a laboratory mouse with whom Charlie competes during experiments with a maze. Before the operation, he loses but afterward he mops the floor with mousie--not literally, of course. When Algernon starts losing his way in the maze and refusing to take nourishment, Charlie reads the handwriting on the rodent. There's the fate awaiting him.
During one of their frequent one-sided conversations, a worried Charlie tells Algernon, "I don't know which is worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you always wanted to be and feel like you're alone."
Nearly as close to Charlie as Algernon is the teacher who got him on Dr. Strauss's list of the boys most likely: Kelli Williams as Alice. Williams hardly casts a giant shadow and sometimes comes off more like the recreation director on "The Love Boat" than a teacher specializing in mentally challenged students. But she does convey the confusion and guilt Alice feels when she becomes romantically entangled with Charlie.
"Charly" is a hopelessly dated movie; director Ralph Nelson used innumerable stylistic affectations of that era in telling the story, like splitting the screen in half and then quarters and then eighths and so on. It'll be waddling along, telling its story, and then suddenly break out into what look like commercials or credit sequences. Robertson plays it too dumb as the preoperative Charlie and then too snooty in the post-operative sequences. It's as if Jethro on "The Beverly Hillbillies" suddenly turned into John Foster Dulles.
One intriguing part of Modine's metamorphosis: When he gets smart and attends the scientific convention, he starts dressing like Regis Philbin on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"! So this is what the well-dressed intellectual is wearing nowadays.
Bonnie Bedelia appears, mostly in black-and-white flashbacks, as Charlie's mother, who had him institutionalized as a child because she couldn't face raising a handicapped son. In the film's most moving sequence, Charlie goes to Brooklyn to confront her after all these years. The makeup department has turned Bedelia into a shockingly old mess reminiscent of Piper Laurie in "Carrie," with the character scoring not much better in the parenting department.
You'd think that with gene research and DNA and cloning so much in the news now, "Flowers for Algernon" would have been updated at least to the extent of describing in more detail the mysterious operation and its basis in science. But the filmmakers probably thought, and not illogically, that the quicker they got Modine into the operating room, the better. It doesn't give the actor much time to establish Charlie's persona but he manages.
Modine may not be anybody's favorite actor, but he did a fine job last season in the high-rated Hallmark Hall of Fame drama "What the Deaf Man Heard," and he's both funny and volatile in a little-seen satirical comedy called "The Real Blonde" now making the rounds on cable TV. He does what he can to make "Flowers for Algernon" palatable and give it some substance, but the maudlin essence of the story is insurmountable.
He doesn't just have an uphill battle, he has an impossible challenge. It would take somebody smarter than the new and improved Charlie to make "Algernon" work, and nobody that smart would ever want to bother with such trivial drivel in the first place.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company