Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 59, undergoes a surgery that transforms him into a genius, but as he becomes smarter, he realizes the operation may not have been everything he hoped.
This movie is based on the Daniel Keyes’s 1959 novel “Flowers for Algernon,” which is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year (granted, it’s only February). As with all adaptations, this one takes some liberties, but I tried to curb my biases as I watched the film, because I knew no matter what the movie wouldn’t live up to the novel.
The film begins with a credit sequence as Charlie Gordon (Cliff Robertson, “Spider-Man (2002)”) wanders around a playground, slack jawed and vacant-eyed, monkeying around with children, swinging on swings, climbing on jungle gyms, and looking utterly happy. The next scene, Charlie is outside a fence at a university (symbolic of both his separation from knowledge and the rest of the world), listening to the students as they discuss the deeper meanings of Faust and other literary giants. He’s disheartened, and in putzing around the university he finds himself imitating students; he wants to belong here, or anywhere, for that matter.
Charlie attends a night school where, despite his best efforts, he struggles to retain any of the knowledge that he gains. His teacher, Alice Kinnian (Claire Bloom, “The King’s Speech”) is sympathetic towards Charlie because she sees how hard he’s trying. Alice brings Charlie to a university where he is submitted to a number of tests, while scientists watch behind a two-way mirror. Charlie doesn’t take the tests seriously; instead he makes faces at the mirror to amuse himself.
The next day we see Charlie at his job, a bakery, where he believes he has many friends. His ‘friends’, Gimpy, Hank, and a few others, enjoy playing pranks on Charlie for entertainment. Charlie laughs right along with them because he’s not smart enough to understand the jokes are at his expense.
Eventually, Charlie returns to the university, where he attempts navigate a maze faster than a mouse named Algernon. He fails multiple times, and the doctors running the tests are skeptical that an operation could do anything to help, but Alice convinces them; Charlie, though he may not be smart, is incredibly determined to learn. Charlie undergoes the operation, and when he awakens, Alice is standing over him. “I don’t feel any smarter,” he says.
(MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW)
As the film progresses however, Charlie does start to show increasing signs of intelligence. Finally, triumphantly, he succeeds in beating Algernon through the maze, and from there his mind starts to soak up knowledge like a sponge. He becomes so smart that he surpasses Alice, then even the scientists that pioneered the operation. At a conference, as the scientists present data to a roomful of their piers, Charlie stands in the background with a peculiar look on his face, and when it’s his turn to speak we learn why. In listening to their data, he’s found a mistake, and he’s learned that the intelligence is fleeting; he will regress back to his original intelligence. Disheartened, Charlie flees the convention and begins to see ‘the old Charlie’ waiting around for the intelligent Charlie to fade away. He knows that there is nothing to be done, so he returns to his apartment, where Alice asks him to marry her. He says no and asks her to leave, because he knows that soon he will not be enough for her.
There are some very good things in this film; the script, though it strays from the book, has some poignant scenes that wont easily be forgotten. Cliff Robertson did an amazing job as Charlie Gordon; this film actually won him an Oscar, and I believe he absolutely deserved it. Cliff’s ability to show the dichotomy between the less intelligent Charlie and the genius version of Charlie is incredible. His gradual ascent towards brilliance is portrayed in a way that makes us root for Charlie to shine as brightly as possible. The pulchritudinous Claire Bloom holds her own as Alice Kinnian, and we really see her struggle as she falls in love with a man whom she realizes is only temporary. It's beautifully tragic.
The film boasts some innovative editing techniques, some of which work and others don’t. There are quite a few scenes that make use of split screen, and the first time, when the characters were diametrically opposed, it absolutely made sense. But as the film went on, the split screen happened half a dozen more times, and, in some scenes, it was seemingly without reason.
The worst part of this film came about halfway through, and this scene completely took me out of the story, and brought my rating down a half-star. It is implied that the post-operation Charlie is going through a kind of sexual awakening, as his mind is maturing beyond it’s adolescent state; this is implied in the book as well, but in a much more subtle way. In the film, Charlie attempts to rape Alice, but she fends him off, and Charlie, distraught with what he’s done, flees. The next sequence is one of the most bizarre scenes I’ve witnessed on film; so jarring and utterly disjointed from the rest of the movie, that I literally found myself laughing aloud. Charlie goes to find himself by joining a motorcycle gang, drinking, smoking pot, and partying. The whole thing is accompanied by weird, almost schizophrenic, pseudo-psychedelic editing.
In this scene there is a kind of dance number featuring the motorcycle gang. Then when Charlie smokes there’s even a flashing disclaimer warning the viewer that smoking is bad for your health. The scene is hilarious, and has no bearing whatsoever on the rest of the film, because after this three and a half minute scene, Alice returns to Charlie’s apartment and says that she saw his motorcycle for sale outside.
He says that he’s back now, and then in the scene following, Alice and he are discussing marriage… Wait, what? After an attempted rape just two scenes prior, we’re expected to believe that Alice and Charlie are in love? Are you joking? The scene totally derails the movie, and I had a hard time taking the next few scenes seriously, as I kept thinking back to the motorcycle dance number and snickering to myself. Had this scene not been in the film, my rating would’ve been a 3.5/5. I’ve kind of developed a love-hate relationship with the scene now, because it’s the first thing I think of when I picture this movie.
“Flowers for Algernon” is an incredibly harrowing examination of how man’s relationship with intelligence and the world around him can change based solely on perspective. This film, sadly, focuses too much on the relationship between Alice and Charlie and not enough on the outside world. As a result, we never really see Charlie for the genius he supposedly becomes. Omitting scenes from the novel that showed his growth, and adding scenes that had no obvious reason for being in the film undercut the transformation Charlie undergoes. What was an incredibly sad and beautiful look at the wonders of being alive became a story of boy meets girl, boy looses girl, boy doesn’t care anymore. Hollywood has, sadly, taken something unique and turned it into something that borders on banal. That being said, some aspects of this film, particularly the acting, pleasantly surprised me, but I was very disappointed by others. As a result I felt very blasé faire towards the whole film.
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