Sunday, May 18, 2008

A medical drama in bad need of a script doctor: Joby Harold’s Awake

Awake left me wondering how the film was ever made. Directed and written by first-timer Joby Harold, Awake takes as its premise the sad fact that out of 21 million operations involving anesthesia, roughly 30,000 patients never actually lose consciousness although their bodies are paralyzed. So they get to experience every aspect (the fear and the extreme pain) of the operation from a perspective of extreme powerlessness. So, what would happen if the patient undergoing a heart transplant operation was a “whiz kid of Wall Street,” one of the most wealthy young men in New York City? What if you could get the former Anakin Skywalker or Hayden Christenson for the part? And then, what if he hears that the doctors plan on killing him during the operation?

An interesting premise, surely, but something went wrong in the production of this film. I was initially impressed by the white filtered cinematography of the opening scene where the camera looks directly down upon Clay Beresford (Christenson) as he lies staring straight up from a bathtub. As the opening credits finish, one notices that he’s actually underwater and holding his breath for about a minute. The scene leaves open the question--why? As an image it prepares the audience for his helplessness later under anesthesia, but as an opening scene, it doesn’t make much sense. Then Sam (Jessica Alba) shows up, leans over the tub, and they kiss. It turns out that Clay does not want to acknowledge his relationship with Sam to his mother because Sam’s just an assistant in the firm, and he owns half of Manhattan. Sam, naturally, does not care for this class neglect, but he’s worth more than a 100 million dollars, so she grins and bears it.

Meanwhile, Clay needs a heart transplant operation. His manipulative mother (Lena Olin) wants the next surgeon general to perform the surgery, while Clay wants his good buddy Dr. Jack Harper (Terrence Howard) to operate instead, in part because he saved his life during an earlier heart attack. But Dr. Harper has had four malpractice lawsuits just because, as he says, people “don’t know what to do with their grief” after his patients die. Soon enough, one night, the donor’s heart arrives, Clay lies down on the operating table, and then, one hour into the film, the script really gets extravagantly flamboyant.

Since I don’t want to spoil the storyline, I can only hint of what goes wrong, but one can start with Clay. The man may be conscious, but he’s also paralyzed. He may hear ominous things coming from the doctors, but he’s can’t do anything except say stuff like “Just focus” and “They are trying to kill me!” in an unintentionally comic voiceover. Secondly, the film has a hard time maintaining its tone. While the doctors act like they’re in a gritty noir crime film, Clay’s story drifts dangerously close to soap opera melodrama. Thirdly, the film’s point of view shifts from Clay’s perspective under the knife to his memories (mostly of Sam), and then to various characters out in the waiting room. In terms of script conventions, Clay should turn into some sort of action figure, fighting for his life, but he’s still paralyzed, so he imagines himself in his hospital scrubs visiting various characters, exhorting them to help out. At other times, he revisits his past like Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, bemoaning his mistakes. Lastly, the operation itself appears ridiculously casual, with no hospital oversight. Someone waltzes in with the heart in a cooler and the doctors stand around like amateurs as one unlikely plot contrivance piles on another.

Ultimately, the film strains credulity, calls attention to its cheap devices for suspense and plot twists, and completely undermines itself, which is a shame, because the first half isn’t that bad, and none of the actors deserves the professional embarrassment. Awake reminds one of the necessity of good writing from beginning to end when one makes a psychological thriller. One little misstep, and the whole operation comes crashing down.

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