Genre: Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi
Director: Ralph Nelson
Screenwriter: Stirling Silliphant
based on the short story FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by Daniel Keyes
Music: Ravi Shankar
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Dick Van Patten
“If the plural of mouse is mice, the plural of spouse must be spice.” a wisecrack from our protagonist Charly Gordon (Robertson), trying to convince viewers that it is something a genius would jest with his girlfriend, both sun-drenched, lying on a cozy meadow. But this is not the Charly we know in the beginning, and in hindsight, the opening scene has already presaged the downbeat payoff, Charly is a mentally challenged man who is miraculously cured by an experimental surgery conceived and carried out by the team of two extraordinary scientists Dr. Richard Nemur (Janney) and Dr. Anna Straus (Skala).
Based on Daniel Keyes prestigious short story, Ralph Nelson’s CHARLY faces a daunting task to convince audience the inconceivable transubstantiation from a simpleton to a genius, not on the scientific level (since it is a fantasy as yet unaccomplished), but the giant mental leap of its subject which we can empathize with. So what the movie chooses to present is Charly enunciating a litany of scientific jargon and literary excerpts, as he masters the entire curriculum of an ordinary person’s education within weeks, and his limit seems to be uncapped.
But as an axiomatic belief, intelligence shows more in one’s action than words, what Charly does does not index with his surging I.Q., hyperbolically thrusts his “sudden awakening” libido into a horrendous rape attempt on his night school teacher Alice Kinnian (Bloom) is a low move, a Freudian instinct has very tenuous tie-in with “becoming smart”, more prickly, a flaring-up’s Alice’s retort with that “R” word is a nasty slap on the movie’s own face, maybe in the 60s, “pity sex” is not an option on the filmmakers’ plate, which would be very probable under that scenario.
Weirder and weirder, after a jarring montage of Charly experiencing that era’s counter-culture (aka. motor-riding hippiedom) in the wake of Alice’s spurn, apropos of nothing, the latter has come to her senses that in fact she does love him, they become a pair and enjoy their ephemeral life of Riley, until bad tidings from Charly’s erstwhile competitor, an intelligence-enhanced mouse named Algernon, suggests that Charly’s progress may not be permanent, a reversion seems to be inevitable, but one shouldn’t despair, Charly is always a gaily chump, there is chance that life would be better if he keeps that way.
Winning Cliff Robertson an Oscar for his diametrical impersonations from mentally handicapped to whip smart, Robertson’s performance is anything but groundbreaking, saving from deploying Charly’s before-and-after personas with trite tics and traits, he has little to ginger up the smart Charly’s formulaic, stoical characterization when the story veers into a different direction. Whereas a well-coifed Claire Bloom and a steely Lilia Skala move with true grit in their thinly developed characters, if only Ravi Shankar’s clattering sitar score could save the day, a rather ordinary cinematic adaptation of an instructive tall-tale, Robertson’s Oscar win is a rare fluke, especially picked over Peter O’Toole’s cothurnus-turn in THE LION IN WINTER, a choice the Academy definitely rues from the ground up.
referential entries: Barry Levinson’s RAIN MAN (1988, 8.2/10); Sidney Lumet’s EQUUS (1977, 8.2/10).