Awakenings (1990)

Penny Marshall directs Robin Williams, Robert DeNiro and Julie Kavner in this true life medical drama where a doctor proves that the closed-off vegetable patients in his mental ward could still be hidden inside their catatonic states.

An intentionally mawkish and sentimental film but told with such a persuasive cinematic patter that you get carried along. The first hour is a masterclass in bullet point storytelling. In short, cascading scenes Marshall and Steven Zaillian deliver swathes of dry medical information as Williams’ Doc deep dives into the medical anomaly like a detective mystery. It moves at such a persuasive beat while holding your hand with every nimble step of the chase. The final act is little more heavy going as DeNiro goes from a charismatic recovery success story to relapsing back into an unconscious state. Man, he was such a great actor then, even when twitching and gurning like an Oscar Whore in December! This material stretches him but he makes an impact even sitting motionless in a wheelchair. Williams has tooled around in the quirky outsider quack role a lot whenever he was working away from zany comedy. He really was attracted to scripts about mental rehabilitation. He essays a shy man… one who fights his corner only when necessary… whose background patiently observing plants and insects gives him the unique tools to not overlook the written-off patients. He resists quirk except for a few trailer moments and more than matches DeNiro’s more challenging role. While you can see the badgering manipulation happening before your eyes, this still is a good adult weepie. That excellent construction covers up its more inherent exploitative mercenary nature. It wants to make you cry, wants to make you feel, it shows no mercy or restraint in hitting the buttons beneath its sheen.


Check out my wife Natalie’s Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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