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By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 11, 1991


Penny Marshall
Robert De Niro;
Robin Williams;
Julie Kavner;
Ruth Nelson;
John Heard;
Penelope Ann Miller;
Max von Sydow
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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"Awakenings" is cause for rejoicing, a literate and compassionate film in this season of chintz and barbarism. A sweetly stirring drama in the spirit of "Rain Man," it explores the mutual gain in a union between an emotionally handicapped man and his neurologically disabled friend. Featured here are Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, attuned as bow and fiddle in their roles of a clinical psychiatrist and the catatonic patient he awakens from a sleep of 30 years.

Based on the book by Oliver Sacks, the story takes place in 1969 in a Bronx chronic-care hospital for those with the most profound neurological diseases. Williams plays Malcolm Sayer, an absent-minded, gentle genius partly modeled on the celebrated medical writer. He is a retiring soul, a wallflower turned inward, whose last job was to extract one dekagram of Milontin from four tons of earthworms.

"Everyone said it couldn't be done," he says. "It can't," observes the pragmatic hospital chief (John Heard), who is considering him for a job. "I know that now," Sayer returns, and in an economy of patter, we know all we need to know about this thoroughly lovable and obstinate fellow with his high-water pants, white socks and brown shoes. Willing to battle either windmills or higher authorities, he is a kind, decent man, and that is the real secret behind the success of this movie.

Leonard Lowe, played by De Niro, is harder to get to know at the onset, for he is essentially a vegetable in what the staff calls the garden. Patients are fed, watered and kept clean, but never ever expected to recover. Many were admitted 30, 40 and 50 years ago, and no doctor has even bothered to review their records. But Sayer is more than a doctor; he is a kind of charming lunatic.

A reclusive researcher who suddenly finds himself practicing on patients, Sayer is unnerved by the more hysterical ones -- like the mountainous Waheedah (Waheedah Ahmad), who is terrified of pens. It seems only natural that he would be drawn to Lowe, one of a cluster of patients as immutable as gargoyles. Though they can neither speak nor move of their own accord, Sayer is haunted by the possibility that they could all be alive inside -- an alternative one doctor (Max Von Sydow) calls "unthinkable."

His concern and curiosity aroused, Sayer sets out to solve this medical mystery and in so doing comes up with a possible treatment, which he tests first on Lowe. Of course, the other doctors either scoff or shudder at his schemes, but after swallowing increasingly higher doses of an experimental drug, L-dopa, Lowe miraculously wakens. Something of a sleeping beauty, he is an endearing, childlike individual who gently nudges Sayer out of his own emotional dormancy and into his own awakening. They become colleagues in testing the boundaries of being.

Lowe, delighted with the simplest things -- the breeze from a fan, brushing his teeth -- never complains about what he has lost, only relishes what he has gained. Unfortunately, the side effects of the drug turn his resurrection into a plague of spasms and mania. But he insists on continuing the experiment: "L-l-l-earn from me," he stammers.

De Niro's performance is a physical wonder, a stony guise that gives way to a sideshow of wracking tics. Underlying that is a zest for living that fairly breaks our hearts as it complements Williams's comically tentative bedside manner. They are as happily paired as bagels and cream cheese.

"Awakenings," the third film by Penny Marshall, is in its heart of hearts a buddy movie, a dramatic structure as reliable as an oaken barrel. Marshall, who directs from Steven Zaillian's economic screenplay, wins a chain of lustrous performances from an eclectic cast that includes Julie Kavner as Sayer's sympathetic nurse; Penelope Ann Miller as Lowe's enchanting love interest; Keith Diamond as an enthusiastic orderly; and the late Dexter Gordon, appearing for the last time on film, as another of Sayer's awakened patients.

Marshall masterfully plays our strings without becoming either melodramatic or maudlin. Like Brian De Palma's "Bonfire of the Vanities," hers is an adaptation that ends with a wake-up call, only here it's done successfully and in context. "Awakenings" tells us that we have not only lost our way but that we are also sleeping at the wheel. We have forgotten what matters -- "friendship, family ... the simplest things" -- and it would tenderly resurrect us from our lassitude.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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