It should be an interesting Academy Award ceremonies this year, when the lead performers in the movies of Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall (ex-spouses who, apparently, do not get along well) will probably win the top awards--Kathy Bates for Misery and Robert DeNiro for Awakenings.
Awakenings is an extraordinary movie. It has some parallels to Rain Man and Charly, but it's much stronger. Penny Marshall excels at setting a mood, she makes you understand what it's like to be a child in the late 1920s in the first ten minutes of the film. The action jumps ahead forty years, to a dismal, depressing psychiatric hospital in New York, where Dr. Sayer (Robin Williams) reluctantly takes a job as as researcher. He's used to working with earthworms but, sadly, the long-time catatonics he comes into contact with aren't much better off.
Dr. Sayer believes he sees flickers of life behind the catatonic masks of his patients. While some can bearly move, they have some reflexes, and a few seem to respond a little to their surroundings. One patient, Lucy, catches her glasses, and walks along the pattern on the floor, only stopping when the pattern ends. Another patient, Leonard, exhibits brain activity when his name is spoken during an EEG. Sayer tries to stimulate these patients, to prove that they comprehend what's happening to them, and has mixed results.
Dr. Sayer finds out that a drug, L-dopa, has made improvements in the lives of Parkinson's patients, and he gets permission to try it on a patient. He chooses Leonard (Robert DeNiro), and Leonard, gradually, comes out of a thirty year sleep.
The relationship between Leonard and Sayer is remarkable. Sayer is a very caring man, but he's painfully shy and inhibited. Leonard has been forced inward by neurological damage, but he's determined to do whatever he can, to experience everything he's missed. Sayer helps Leonard cope with the missing years, and Leonard helps Sayer learn as much as he can about the drug.
The most unbelievable part of the movie was the mass drug-testing of the entire catatonic ward. Maybe that's the way it "really" happened, but the ward staff was incredibly stretched caring "just" for catatonics. They were hopelessly overworked once fifteen neurologically-damaged yet awake people populated their ward. These scenes have the feel of Cocoon, and were out-of-place with the rest of the movie.
There are many wonderful performances in this movie. The actress who played Leonard's devoted mother gave co-dependency a whole new meaning. She's not evil, and she's happy that Leonard is better, but she has trouble coping with a fifty-year-old adolescent. Julie Kavner did a nice turn as Sayer's supportive nurse, Elinor. And Alice Drummond as the gentle, confused Lucy, was also quite good.
The performances of Williams and DeNiro are extraordinary, Williams for the subtleness, and DeNiro for the range. When performers are mismatched (Cruise and Hoffman in Rain Man and Redford and Streep in Out Of Africa spring instantly to mind), the movie suffers. But these performers work perfectly together.
Penny Marshall is one of the most important directors of the day. Even with a weak script (Jumping Jack Flash), she consistently gets good performances from her performers, and all her movies have lovely details. The homes of the characters in Marshall movies look like places where people live. And her vision of New York isn't quite as grand as Woody Allen's---again, it's a "lived in" place.
This movie is at least an 8, and maybe a 9. It's a superb film, and I hope you all go see it.