Penny Marshall’s film of the late Oliver Sacks’ medical reportage, adapted to the screen by Steven Zaillian, strikes for the most part a careful balance between sentimentality (note with dismay the occasionally oppressive, syrupy score by Randy Newman) and stark, painful honesty, with the kind of bittersweet denouement that simply wouldn’t pass muster in a studio movie today.
It’s a kind of inversion of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – that one, if only the staff were nice – and maybe hints at that influence a little too much heading into the third act, as the plot takes a strangely pulpy detour that doesn’t go anywhere and wraps up quickly enough to be forgotten.
The performances make for a better comparison, as both leads reach career heights here. De Niro is his method self, of course, but he reins it in more than usual, even as his body shakes and contorts in Parkinsonian spasms. Robin Williams, meanwhile, is basically playing himself when he wasn’t coked up to the max, the kindness and vulnerability in his eyes telling you everything you need to know about the man he’s portraying as much as the man he actually was.