Robert De Niro and Robin Williams star in a story of the consequences of a maverick doctor's medical miracle.
Penny Marshall
Robert De NiroRobin WilliamsRuth Nelson
English [CC]
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Supporting actors
Penelope Ann Miller
Lawrence LaskerWalter Parkes
Columbia Pictures
PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned)
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Smokingsubstance usealcohol usefoul languageviolence
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4.7 out of 5 stars

3652 global ratings

  1. 83% of reviews have 5 stars
  2. 11% of reviews have 4 stars
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Top reviews from the United States

Matthew D'SouzaReviewed in the United States on May 5, 2019
5.0 out of 5 stars
A Breathtaking True Story
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A deeply moving testament to the power of medicine and empathy.

Penny Marshall's medical drama Awakenings (1990) is a profoundly moving film. I find it captures the belief in medical science that doctors should aspire to, but more so relating to their patients' suffering and condition.

Marshall bravely represents a lost portion of society that have been left to die catatonic and hopeless in hospitals. Awakenings is inspired filmmaking from Marshall and inspiring as a story to remind the audience to live life to the fullest of your ability.

Randy Newman delivers his finest musical compositions with his affectionate jazz score. Newman underscores the harsh reality of Awakenings with delicate jazz brought to life with tender piano melodies throughout the film. It fits perfectly and swells just in the right emotional moments. Newman's score just mesmerizes me.

Steven Zaillian's beautiful script is brought to life by numerous brilliant performances within Awakenings' magnificent cast.

Namely, Robin Williams is so tender and empathetic as Dr. Malcolm Sayer. Awakenings is Williams' finest dramatic role as he finds an appreciation for the most down trodden selection of people and opens up to them. Robin Williams will sorely be missed for the warmth, joy, and compassion he brought to his characters and the world.

Similarly, Robert De Niro is inspired Leonard Lowe, a catatonic patient who is given a new life, as he recreates the afflictions suffered by those with a terrible disease. De Niro slurs his speech, lies still, walks with a limp, shakes his hands and arms, violently spasms his head, averts his eyes, droops his mouth, and any other number of realistic aspects to accurately portray his debilitated character. De Niro's depth for humanity shines in Awakenings as the very much alive Lowe. His love and appreciation for love are given to the audience through De Niro's passionate and method performance.

Furthermore, Julie Kavner is adorable as the sweet nurse Eleanor Costello. Her perseverance for her patients and her love are admirable. Kavne plays the character perfectly.

Then, Awakenings features an astonishing supporting cast of actors and actresses. John Heard is so stingy and cold as Dr. Kaufman. Penelope Ann Miller is so sweet and likable as the hopeful Paula. Max von Sydow gets a cool cameo as the knowledge expert on the movie's main disease concern. His research scene with Robin Williams is gripping and moving, if sad and disturbing at his implications of how horrendous the disease can be. Peter Stormare has a funny cameo as a sleazy, nonchalant neurochemist.

Additionally, Awakenings has several other neat supporting roles played wonderfully by Ruth Nelson, George Martin, Richard Libertini, Alice Drummond, Judith Malina, Bradley Whitford, Mary Alice, Keith Diamond, and even jazz legend Dexter Gordon. Would you believe a young Vin Diesel plays an orderly somewhere in there too?

Overall, Awakenings is an enchanting drama about the power of life and the importance of trying to do what is right. The acting is stellar and worth seeing just for Robin Williams and Robert De Niro alone.
26 people found this helpful
Patricia SheehanReviewed in the United States on November 22, 2015
5.0 out of 5 stars
Based on a True Story
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This movie stars Robert Di Nero as a catatonic patient in a mental hospital in the 1960s; Robin Williams plays the part of his doctor. It is a thought provoking drama that is based on a true story. From around 1915 to 1925 there was a worldwide epidemic of a disease called encephalitis lethargica. Although most people recovered, thousands died, and a small percentage survived but were left with catatonic like symptoms. This movie, based on the book Awakenings by Dr. Oliver Sacks, discloses how L Dopa, a drug designed to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinsons's Disease, helped "awaken" a group of encephalitis lethargica patients in the late 1960s. Although the movie presents only a small group of patients, actually there were thousands of victims living in institutions across the country in the mid Twentieth Century. The story line focuses on Leonard Lowe because he is the first to be given the drug and the first to experience its effects, both good and bad. I'm not going to spoil the ending, so wont say anymore about the plot, but I do highly recommend this film. I found it particularly moving because this is one of the few dramas I have seen where most of the characters are likeable and all are well-intended. Even doctors who oppose Sayer's proposal to try the L Dopa do so in the patients' best interests. The only villain here is the illness itself and the social conundrums it creates. For example, what is the appropriate protocol for caring for patients when no treatment exists? In the movie Robin Williams gives medication just because he thinks it might help...and in doses he hopes will do more good than harm. Is he right to put a patient at risk like that? Is it justified if the patient's situation is hopeless anyway? Another issue is society's responsibility to people who can't take care of themselves. Over the course of the movie it becomes clear that the encephalitis patients have not been in the institution ever since they became ill. It was only after their caregivers could no longer take care of them that they were admitted to a facility for the mentally ill although their diagnosis was not mental illness. Was institutionalization in mental hospitals appropriate in that case? If not, where should they have gone? These questions are not answered because no agreed upon answer exists. Instead, it is left up to the viewer to ponder and decide because there is no guarantee something like this won't happen again.
56 people found this helpful
Rod SeversonReviewed in the United States on June 19, 2020
5.0 out of 5 stars
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The first time I saw this movie was in Singapore, through the absolute tearjerker scenes I was crying as Leonard reverted back to a catatonic state...
As I was crying, the entire theater was laughing and laughing, Of course, I thought, how could any human being fiend this so hilarious...
That's why this movie has stuck with me for many, many years. Robert Deniro deserved his Oscar, and also, the late, great Robin Williams was fantastic, I did expect some tears of joy or sadness but I didn't see any...
This movie ends on a very happy note, the good doctor asking nurse Eleanor out for a cup of coffee...
And his awardness show the highest degree of the screenplay and the acting...
5 people found this helpful
From the Musician's PenReviewed in the United States on December 6, 2015
4.0 out of 5 stars
A Stand-out Film for Both Wiliams and DeNiro & A Must-Own For Your Collection
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Since Robin Williams died, I've wanted to update my film collection with more of his films. He has often been under-recognized as an actor and this has always been one of my favourite of his films. This film has been hard to find and I've waited long for the Blu-ray. Also, it used to be very expensive but now has it for about $10. The Blu-ray picture looks good, although some scenes are bit grainier than others, which is likely due to the the quality of the original footage from the 1990 when the film was made.

This is a fantastic movie, very heartfelt and moving. It is truly a stand out film for both DeNiro and Williams, who give exceptional performances. I've never seen DeNiro in any similar role and this is one of Williams' best serious roles. While Robins portrayed a caring and innovative doctor in "Patch Adams" (also a great film), he was more comical and less serious in that film. The supporting cast here is great too. The characters do not compete with each other but support each other beautifully and all the characters are believable... I don't think anyone could watch this film and not feel for the characters.

There's nothing extraneous in how the story was filmed and edited. It comes across as sincere and not superficial. The methods do not draw attention to themselves, everything works together to tell this moving true story and does not to detract from that purpose. The plot reminds me a bit of "Flowers For Algernon".

My reason for deducting one star is that there are no special features, just the film itself. It would be nice for this film to get a special edition release with information about the real doctor, patients and disease, as well as cast interviews, a making of documentary, etc.
14 people found this helpful
MoanakaiReviewed in the United States on August 29, 2021
5.0 out of 5 stars
Breakthroughs in neurology continue
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but this was drastic for that time period for brain infections which presented parkinsonian type symptoms, my aunt died of Parkinson disease and I have been tested for it but am negative fortunately, although symptoms are related to Lyme and co infections I've had for decades also without cure. The acting of everybody was very difficult especially Robert de Niro, his role must have been extremely tiring to keep up with the contortions required for his walking and arm movements and tics, his speech and even his writing. A different role for both him and Robin Williams then their usual. My third time watching mainly because it's one of my top 10 movies and I was a therapist for 35 years and can relate having worked with patients such as this and also because there are slim pickens for me at this time to watch because I'm very difficult to please when it comes to films. This film runs the gamut of emotions and to think it's based on a true story makes it even more important to me.
PapaEvReviewed in the United States on December 28, 2020
5.0 out of 5 stars
In my opinion this movies ranks among Robin Williams greatest. If you haven't seen it - rent it now!
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I have always used this for entertainment but it goes further than that. This movie is an example of how a person who is a bit different from most because of his talent and perseverance swims against the current and brings new knowledge and insight to the medical field of neurological medicine and common sense to the manner of health professionals when dealing with people with these mental/neurological illnesses. Also mix in the real life social and romantic sub themes and you have Robin Williams at his best - not as a comic this time! I saw this movie years ago my reaction was - "this is not the Robin Williams I know!" He had traversed his usual realm and entered another. PapaEv
One person found this helpful
ERIC T.Reviewed in the United States on August 3, 2015
5.0 out of 5 stars
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Quite like a lot of Robin's movies, the plot lines started out a bit slowly, but developed into a great movie with an outstanding story!!! Robert DeNiro is such a "primo" actor!! He takes what looks like such a simple role and turns it into one that has so many twists and surprises, that you just cannot stop watching him and wondering, "what's next"?? Both Robin and Robert play off of one another magnificently. The other hospital patients who were healed with the new formula were also a "treat" to watch. They were so much fun to follow in their new personalities and sooooo sad to follow as the new formula wore off little by little. This movie may not be a block buster movie, but is one that is fun for the whole family. I miss Robin Williams (especially) and will miss his movie magic the rest of my life. He was more than just an actor, a star, an ordinary human being!!! Check out this movie!!!
9 people found this helpful
Bun-Bun BaxterReviewed in the United States on September 29, 2015
5.0 out of 5 stars
A great tale from a great man, through the performance of a great actor
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This is a moving, fact-based story of the attempts of the great neurologist and writer, Oliver Sacks, to help a group of nursing home patients who
survived an encephalitis epidemic decades earlier, only to later develop a form of Parkinsonian catatonia. The late Dr. Sacks goes by a pseudonym here, but anyone familiar with his actual appearance and gestures will be struck by Robin Williams' portrayal. At the time the film was made, Williams was about the same age Dr. Sacks was in the late 1960's, when the L-Dopa treatments were given to the post-encephalitic patients. Not only is there a remarkable resemblance of visage and build (although the physician was much taller), but Williams absorbed, and replayed, the doctor's movement and diffidence. At the time, this performance surprised audiences who'd only ever seen Williams in frenetic, improvisational performances. Though deNiro's physical performance, as he channeled the vocal and body dysfunction of his character, patient Leonard Lowe, got more praise than did Williams' work, I was more impressed with the latter, as it was less expected, and subtler.

Julie Kavner plays Eleanor Costello, an amalgamation of the many wise, dedicated nurses who cared for these chronic patients. She exemplifies the allegiance of the hospital staff to "Dr. Malcolm Sayer", in the face of resistance from administrators, bringing both strength and vulnerability to her role. There's an understated hint at romantic attraction between these two characters which is the invention of the screenwriter, but it doesn't seem alien to the true story.

Awakenings is one of my top 5 favorite films. I am a devoted reader of Dr. Sacks's writing, so I knew that he was terminally ill, and bought the movie DVD with the knowledge that rewatching the film would be solace when he passed away.
4 people found this helpful
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