Saturday, December 1, 2007

Going Under

A wealthy young man newly married goes in for a risky heart transplant. Shortly after being administered his anesthetic, he realizes that he is still fully conscious but unable to move or speak and will remain so throughout the operation with no way to inform anyone. And with the ability to hear everything going on in the operating room, certain other surprises await him as the operation commences. The plot for AWAKE sounds to me like it could just as easily describe a giallo made in Italy in the seventies, or maybe that’s just my memory of SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS working overtime.

Hayden Christensen is Clayton Beresford Jr., the powerful industrialist who runs his late father’s company and is also devoted to his mother (Lena Olin), though he is secretly dating her assistant (Jessica Alba). He also has a weak heart and is awaiting a transplant, an operation which he expects to be administered by close friend Dr. Jack Harper (Terrence Howard) even though his mother wants the procedure performed by the renowned Dr. Jonathan Neyer (Arliss Howard), so esteemed that he is expected to be the next surgeon general. The situation is complicated by the arrival of Dr. Larry Lupin (Christopher “Shooter McGavin” McDonald) a last-minute replacement for the anesthesiologist. The list of suspicious characters is pretty extensive as Christensen’s character becomes aware of his situation and while a few surprises have already been given away in the trailers, there are some that haven’t.

The basic setup made me think of Italian thrillers made in the seventies and it’s amusing to think of what actors could have starred in a film made from this script (Jean Sorel? Edwige Fenech?) if it had been made back then and it’s easy to imagine that it could have, with a few alterations to the script along with several bottles of J&B lying around. And judging from a twist involving a Christmastime flashback late in the film which seems more than slightly inspired by Argento’s DEEP RED, I can believe that writer/director Joby Harold may have had such films in mind as well.

I don’t want to look at myself in the mirror while defending AWAKE, but the honest truth is that, as silly as the whole thing is, it is kind of involving. Not all of the twists are all that shocking, but I didn’t care. It all plays out as the sort of film that you watch late at night on TV and it succeeds in keeping you awake (to use a word) because you honestly want to know how it turns out. Not everything in the script gets tied together—actually, many things don’t and considering how much the film focuses on the nature of “anesthesia awareness”, even down to an opening crawl informing us of the statistics, it never results in being anything more than a gimmick. Ultimately, it has next to no effect on how a lot of the plot turns out and one very late twist (the Argento-inspired one) doesn’t really have much to do with anything else at all.

Christensen and Alba are both extremely bland, but you kind of knew that already, didn’t you? Fortunately, the supporting actors pick up the slack and provide enough variety that you can easily imagine a few of them in the fantasy giallo version of the film. Lena Olin is excellent as Christensen’s mother—she’s totally there, maybe not knowing for certain just how goofy this whole thing is and McDonald gives an enjoyably off-kilter feel to his anesthesiologist so that you’re not quite certain at first what’s going on with him. And Terrence Howard is given an impossible role to play, being saddled with lots of exposition and motivation which he has to fill in the blanks himself on, but manages to infuse it with a tiny dose of honesty.

It’s only 84 minutes long, it has a crappy rock song over the end credits and there’s very little here to take seriously. And yet I enjoyed AWAKE while watching it. Sometimes I go see a movie that I know is junk and yet I find myself sitting there well into it and suddenly thinking, “Wait a minute…I’ve been paying attention!” I can’t really defend AWAKE and yet I never found it anything less than totally diverting.

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