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Dustin Putman

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Awake  (2007)
1 Stars
Directed by Joby Harold
Cast: Hayden Christensen, Jessica Alba, Terrence Howard, Lena Olin, Christopher McDonald, Sam Robards, Arliss Howard, Fisher Stevens, Georgina Chapman, Steven Hinkle.
2007 – 84 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, a disturbing situation, and brief drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 1, 2007.
"Awake" revolves around a less-rare-than-you'd-think occurrence known as "anesthesia awareness," wherein a person undergoing surgery remains fully alert, yet paralyzed, despite the use of anesthetic. A horrifying thought, indeed, but a good idea for a feature-length film? Not so much. Since the majority of "Awake" takes place on an operating room table—not exactly cinematic enough to withhold the interest of most mainstream audiences—writer-director Joby Harold (in an eye-catching but substance-free debut) has cooked up a cockamamie thriller plot as synthetic as it is predictable. What is going on beneath the surface is so screechingly obvious by the 15-minute mark that all the viewer is left to do for the remainder of the running time is wait around for the slow-witted machinations of the script to catch up.

Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen) is the 22-year-old son of a deceased billionaire father (Sam Robards) and a smothering, opinionated mother (Leno Lin). He's got the prosperous family business at his fingertips and a loving, if quietly under wraps, girlfriend in Sam Lockwood (Jessica Alba). He's also got a serious heart problem, and on the same night that Clay and Sam go public with their relationship and subsequently marry, Clay receives word from close friend Dr. Jack Harper (Terrence Howard) that a matching heart has been found for a transplant. Naturally, Clay is frightened to face the surgery, but he becomes even more so when the anesthetics fail to put him under before the surgeon breaks out his scalpel.

"Awake" features some creepy imagery via Clay's hallucinations during surgery, as in a scene where the lamps on the New York City street he stands on begin to consecutively go out behind him. Key flashbacks to a haunting Christmas memory from his childhood are also subtly off-kilter and aesthetically storybook-like, a mixture of the festive with the macabre. And, at least early on, the operation sequences are fittingly claustrophobic and paranoia-filled as Clay is faced with the unthinkable task of being awake during a full heart transplant, unable to move but feeling every slice and incision. Had "Awake" remained focused on this nightmarish situation, the film might have been thin from a plot standpoint, but it also could have gone more intriguingly in-depth into the mind of a person experiencing "anesthesia awareness."

Instead, writer-director Joby Harold turns down a different avenue—one that is empty, shallow and overly familiar. It is virtually impossible to further explore this genre-bending turn without giving things away, but let it be known that the revelations occurring at around the one-hour mark are set up with such lead-footed transparency that only a wholly inattentive viewer will be unable to put all the pieces together ahead of time. In the interim, there is an effectively sad-eyed performance from Lena Olin (2004's "The United States of Leland"), as Clay's seemingly cold but ultimately caring mother, Lilith, amidst a lot of inauspicious imaginary segments where an out-of-body Clay mopes around while viewing various snapshots of his life. This might sound like a great setup for an existential study in life, living and death, but Harold mostly squanders it by never digging beyond the superficial.

With lead performances from Hayden Christensen (2005's "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith") and Jessica Alba (2007's "Good Luck Chuck") that could politely be described as uneven and impolitely characterized as wooden—as co-stars, at least they are on even ground—"Awake" has reportedly been collecting dust on the shelf for a couple years. As is customary of movies produced by brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, it is finally seeing release with poor promotion, untrusting support, and little fanfare. In this case, however, one can almost see why they have been hesitant; the movie is undernourished, fails to take advantage of its nifty central conceit, and features few commercial prospects other than the prettiness of its actors. Far from the epitome of time well spent, "Awake" will probably make you wish you hadn't been.
© 2007 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman