Anakin, Alba sleepwalk through Awake

by Glen Baity

Awake, the first (and possibly last) film by writer/director Joby Harold, begins with an explanation of its title, which refers to a strange and horrifying phenomenon: According to the film, a small percentage of people who undergo general anesthesia become paralyzed, but remain wholly alert, feeling every ounce of the pain related to their surgeries.

I have no idea if this is true, or even arguably accurate; given the source, I have my doubts. I use a lot of words to describe a lot of movies, but it’s rare I find one so simple to sum up: Awake is easily the stupidest movie I’ve seen in 2007. Its writing is stupid; its clumsy plot twists are stupid; its very premise is stupid, stupid, stupid.

As a 20-something billionaire with claims to a good chunk of Manhattan, Clay Beresford has everything. Except, crucially, a healthy heart. Awake joins him near the end of his wait on the donor list, as he spars with his overprotective mother (Lena Olin) and carries on a secret love affair with her personal assistant Sam (Jessica Alba).

When his new heart arrives, he’s counting on his heart surgeon friend Jack (Terrence Howard) to perform the life-saving procedure. You might have guessed that the call eventually comes, and that Clay is technically awake and alert when his chest is sawed open. What happens then will shock you, if you’re the kind to be shocked by utterly implausible, moronic plot contrivances.

A friend of mine who keeps up with these sorts of things informs me that Awake spent well over a year sitting on the shelf. Small wonder, that, but puzzling that the Weinstein Company would release it at the height of Oscar season. This film has “modest mid-February release” written all over it, if not “straight to DVD.”

Alba’s top billing is the only reasonable explanation for the film showing up in December. Though it flies in the face of logic, she remains Hollywood’s favorite pretty face, acting chops be damned. Her performance here is yet another clunker in a long line. Like her earlier work in such powerhouses as Into The Blue and both Fantastic Four films, Awake is unlikely to do any damage whatsoever to her reputation. Still, Alba seems forever resigned to playing the supportive love interest to a vacuous leading man (Paul Walker, Ioan Gruffud, Dane Cook and, here, Hayden Christensen). It’s not a role anyone could be expected to do and retain any dignity, and it’s strange – and a little sad – that she keeps going for it.

But really, the performances are leaden and dull all the way around, even from the usually-great Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow, Crash), slumming as the older brother figure. Then there’s Christensen, who I defended during the Episode Two and Three years with a little more tenacity than was probably warranted. Even outside the damaging tutelage of George Lucas, Christensen proves an oppressively boring presence, exhibiting all the vigor of Josh Hartnett on a pound of Quaaludes.

For anyone who stubbornly insists on seeing the film after its opening weekend, I won’t spoil too much of the proceedings, but suffice it to say certain characters aren’t who they claim to be, and there are more than a few shadow conspirators working against our hero. Clay learns all of this because he is “awake” during his surgery, and evidently omnipotent to boot. Since he can’t talk to anyone other than himself, the effect is something like The Invisible from earlier this year. In both films, the audience must endure a phenomenally self-absorbed character who spends a large chunk of the film talking to himself in sullen soliloquies.

Awake’s dialogue, however, is no better when the characters are interacting. When Clay is about to head in for his heart transplant, he actually says the following line to Alba’s character: “Do you think my new heart will love you as much as my old one?”

Similar dreck is splashed around throughout. At an inconsequential 84 minutes, the film still feels long and punishing. I’ll even go for the obvious joke and point out that despite its title, I had no trouble almost falling asleep in the third act. Gaping plot holes, bad acting and bad writing make Awake one of the most easily missable films of the holiday season.

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