Directed By: Penny Marshall

Starring: Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, John Heard, Julie Kavner, Penelope Ann Miller, and Max von Sydow

"His gaze is from the passing of bars so exhausted, that it doesn't hold a thing anymore.  For him, it's as if there were thousands of bars and behind the thousands of bars no world.  The sure stride of lithe, powerful steps, that around the smallest of circles turns, is like a dance of pure energy about a center, in which a great will stands numbed.  Only occasionally, without a sound, do the covers of the eyes slide open-.  An image rushes in, goes through the tensed silence of the frame- only to vanish, forever, in the heart."
-Dr. Sayer (Robin Williams)

Earlier this month, Hollywood lost a living legend in the great Robin Williams.  Though his dive into depression was allegedly a consequence of CBS canceling his show The Crazy Ones, Williams reached generation after generation in a career full of great moments on the screen and stage.  The proof is in the laughter and joy he brought to viewers through hits like Mork & Mindy, Aladdin, and even Night at the Museum.  As fate would have it, I posted a review of a film that set the tone for comedians sporting fat suits in the 90s in Mrs. Doubtfire the very day before Williams took his own life.  Still, like many other critics, bloggers, and fans, I now need to get my fix of this beloved, versatile performer.  Since I've covered a comedy with everybody's favorite rockin' sockin' granny, I opted for something a little more serious in Awakenings.

It's 1969.  Despite his prior experience as a researcher, Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Williams) is hired to work at a hospital as a neurologist with catatonic patients.  These poor people were victims of the encephalitis lethargica outbreak between 1917 and 1928.  While his supervisor Dr. Kaufman (John Heard) believes that these patients are beyond medical help and just need care, Dr. Sayer prescribes to a different philosophy.  After consulting with Dr. Peter Ingham (Max von Sydow), the curious researcher in him discovers that there are certain stimuli to which the patients will respond, such as throwing a ball at them or hearing music that touches them.  As he begins to discover ways to reach his patients, one man remains unreachable, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro).  Dr. Sayer soon finds a way to connect to Leonard in the form of an ouija board.

One day, Dr. Sayer learns about a new drug intended to treat patients with Parkinson's disease known as L-DOPA.  The good doctor believes this to be something that can help his catatonic patients whose symptoms are not too dissimilar to those of Parkinson's.  Sayer reaches out to Kaufman to get approval for his patients to go on this drug.  His boss gives approval for one patient to go on the drug, Leonard.  When Sayer puts Leonard on the drug, he monitors him day and night.  One evening, he wakes up and finds Leonard up and about the facility.  The once catatonic Leonard has come to life and is now walking and talking as if he hasn't missed a beat.  In actuality, he's missed 30 years of his life and is really a child in a grown man's body.  With Leonard's awakening, Sayer soon has the funding to wake up all his encephalitis patients with the miracle drug L-DOPA.

The 1960s were apparently an enlightening period for survivors of the encephalitis epidemic in the 1920s.  With her adaptation of neurologist Oliver Sacks's novel of the same name, director Penny Marshall puts together a surprisingly joyous film full of life and energy that showcases those forgotten survivors trapped in their own mental hell.  This is really a cinematic triumph given the task Marshall has on her hands, adapting a rather depressing real life tale.  At the same time, she addresses the complexities and nuances associated with these awakenings with the appropriate sensitivity and use of emotion.  It also helps that she casts her stars perfectly.  This movie could have been a typical something that fails to capture the beauty and tragedy of this once-in-a-lifetime occurrence in another director's hands.  Instead, Awakenings is an atypical something that demonstrates the tremendous will of the human spirit in Marshall's hands.

Though comedian Robin Williams had proven he had some acting chops in prior films in the 80’s, he had never been tested before as he is in Awakenings.  Starring opposite Robert De Niro in his prime, Williams has the opportunity to establish himself as a thespian in his own right, and he does just that as Dr. Malcolm Sayer.  In what could have otherwise been a heavy, depressing drama, Williams brings the right amount of his signature wit and charm to keep the film just light enough.  Williams brings a warmth, kindness, and curiosity about life to the role that allows him to hit all the right notes as this researcher-turned-physician.  When you combine this with the more dramatic scenes he shares with De Niro and the other cast members, it's a potent combination.  All in all, Williams's versatility as a performer allows him to balance the levity and depth of Dr. Malcolm Sayer and elevate this complex drama.

While Williams gives an outstanding performance, it's undeniable that De Niro is on fire as Leonard Lowe.  There are really three phases in De Niro's portrayal of this character — the catatonic Leonard, the awakened Leonard, and the unstable Leonard.  In each of these, he brings something different to the screen.  In a catatonic state, De Niro richly conveys that the lights are out for Leonard.  It's all in his eyes at this point in the film that express a profound emptiness.  As the lights start turning on and Leonard awakens, De Niro tackles the complexities of portraying a child in a man's body and a person who's lost so much of his life to nothingness.  In this period of the character's story, De Niro conveys an undeniable zest for life yet a profound, vivid awareness of how quickly the tide can turn.  In Leonard's final phase as the lights begin to fade, De Niro gives a much more physical and conflicted performance.  As L-DOPA's side effects become clearer and the ticks begin, De Niro must move his body in such unnatural ways as he simply walks and talks to convey the torment his character endures at all times.  Seeing that the tides are turning, he also becomes a much more rebellious, feisty patient.  All in all, the screen legend gives yet another forcefully dramatic yet nuanced performance in a career full of them.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the supporting cast as well.  John Heard, Julie Kavner, and Penelope Ann Miller all bring quite a bit to the film.  The cast members portraying Leonard'a fellow patients also deliver impressive, nuanced performances.

Awakenings is one of the great films in Robin Williams's filmography for which he'll be remembered.  With strong direction from Penny Marshall and terrific performances from Williams and De Niro, it's a subtly beautiful film that's equally curious and gripping.  Awakenings gets a strong 0.03% rating.  Have a couple of wine coolers with this one.