In a display of subtle acting, his most subdued yet, Robin Williams is terrific as a painfully shy, retiring research physician who finds himself reluctantly practicing in a chronic hospital in 1969 in "Awakenings."
Despite his terrific performance, however, Williams is no match for his co-star, Robert De Niro, as the patient who is the film's primary focus. It is a brilliant star turn and could well mark the actor's third Oscar after "The Godfather" and "Raging Bull." (Oscar-voters love stars who play handicapped characters, as two recent wins attest, Dustin Hoffman for "Rain Man" and Daniel Day-Lewis for "My Left Foot.")"Awakenings" is based on the true story of Dr. Oliver Sacks' experiences as he found a series of unexplained similarities between patients at a chronic psychiatric hospital in the late '60s who were in a comalike state. Eventually, he discovered each suffered from enchephalitis lethargia, a sleeping sickness that swept the country during the 1920s, and proceeded to use an experimental drug called L-Dopa on them.
The astonishing result was that the patients came back to life, if you will, some after many years of no outward physical or mental activity at all. Unfortunately, there were unexpected side effects that turned the brief period of joy to tragedy. But not without lessons learned.
De Niro plays the first patient to whom Williams gives the drug, opening the door for what is to come. De Niro has been in his semiconscious state, unable to speak or do anything for himself, for 30 years.
The film's centerpiece has him rediscovering life and trying to cope with having lost 30 years, in the process teaching those around him to resist taking their lives for granted.
The film's message is simple enough and the story, scripted by Steven Zaillian from Sacks' book and directed by Penny Marshall ("Big"), quite straightforward, told a step at a time as we meet Williams' character, follow him through his awkward adjustment stages at the hospital and then see him perform literal miracles with his patients.
And though the tragic repercussions are painstakingly re-created as the film winds down, the overall tone is upbeat and joyous, laced with liberal amounts of humor, and will likely have you leaving the theater ready to enjoy your life, no matter how difficult it may seem at times.
De Niro and Williams, as mentioned, are knockouts, but others who also deliver great performances include Julie Kavner as Williams' nurse, John Heard as the insensitive head of the hospital and numerous character actors as patients, including Alice Drummond, Anne Meara and the late Dexter Gordon.
"Awakenings" is a fabulous movie from beginning to end. Put this one on your must-see list.
It is rated a soft PG-13 for a couple of profanities and some mild violence.