Picks and Pans Review: Awakenings

updated 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Robert De Niro, Robin Williams

The moments of anguish and triumph come so fast and furious that this movie is constantly threatening to turn into a medical soap opera. But director Penny (Big) Marshall, De Niro, Williams and writer Steven (The Falcon and the Snowman) Zaillian keep the emotions reined in just enough to create a moving, thoughtful film.

The movie is based on neurologist Oliver Sacks's book about a Bronx doctor in the late '60s who, using a new drug, treated patients in catatonic states—some of which had lasted as long as 50 years—due to side effects of encephalitis. Williams, fidgety as ever but all serious business, is the doctor. De Niro, who has been dormant for 30 years, is the first patient Williams revives.

If anyone in the theater has a dry eye when the awakened De Niro walks across a room to hug his mother, Ruth A Wedding) Nelson, check them for a heartbeat. It's a beautifully staged sequence, full of a too-good-to-be-true exhilaration subtly controlled by Marshall, De Niro and Nelson.

You assume De Niro will be spectacular, and he is, delivering all the pain, confusion and childish joy his character is entitled to. Williams is right too as an insecure man whose professional courage is surpassing.

Marshall and casting director Bonnie Timmermann back them up splendidly. John (Betrayed) Heard is suitably officious as a supervising doctor, Julie (Radio Days) Kavner is Williams's devoted nurse, and Penelope Ann (The Freshman) Miller is a visitor De Niro develops a crush on.

A naive romantic subplot involving Williams and Kavner seems crammed into the plot, as does the Miller-De Niro relationship. The film is too similar to Charly, the 1968 movie with Cliff Robertson. But it's hard to be distracted, so involving and, even at its most trying moments, so life-affirming is Williams and De Niro's struggle. "The human spirit is more powerful than any drug," Williams says, "and that's what needs to be nourished." (PG-13)

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