In this case, seeing is not believing
Peter Beyer | Dortmund | 07/21/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Between the tear-jerking excesses of two of the Christmas season's biggest movies, Patch Adams and Stepmom,you'd think that even the staunchest fans of those caring-and-sharing medical weepers would have reached their limit. But here comes At First Sight,which is not quite so life-and- death, but it's just as determined, in its modest way, to milk those tear ducts dry. In this case, though, the scientific context of the movie -- about a blind man who regains his sight with unexpected repercussions -- makes for a subject considerably more interesting than the romantic drama to which it is attached.
At First Sight is based on the writings of neurologist Oliver Sacks (the movie Awakenings was adapted from his work as well). It tells the true story of a 50-year- old blind man named Virgil who works as a YMCA masseur. On the eve of his wedding, he has cataracts removed, which allows him to see for the first time in 40 years. The experience, however, turns out to be more painful than joyful. As Sacks notes, the questions raised are profound, and have interested philosophers from John Locke to George Berkeley. Is sight a learned activity? What is the relationship between a world understood through touch and one understood through sight?
The basic facts have been moulded into a trite romance that could easily fit between a pair of Harlequin covers. Unfortunately, the film glosses over the science and deliberately avoids some of the odder aspects of the original case. Virgil, on gaining his sight, also managed to pack on about 50 pounds; stress made him eat. Somehow, though, you don't expect a star of Val Kilmer's magnitude to take the Raging Bull route to character authenticity through poundage.
Instead, what we have is a story of a woman who discovers the perfect man, almost loses him, and then regains him. Mira Sorvino plays Amy Benic, a hot-shot New York architect, who heads off for a spa weekend in a charming New England village. Before she knows it, a hunky masseur has her calf muscles in his hands and has her melting like warm butter under his probing fingers. Entranced, she returns for further rubdowns until one day she approaches Mr. Magic Fingers as he's getting on a bus and discovers -- omigod! -- he's blind.
After a brief Internet search, Amy discovers that Virgil doesn't necessarily have to be blind, and she lands a top surgeon (Bruce Davison) to cure the problem. It turns out that Virgil is a bit reluctant, and his sister Jennie (Kelly McGillis) is downright hostile to the idea of improving her brother's lot. Love wins, though, and Virgil agrees to undergo the treatment. Soon, Virgil and Amy are sharing her New York apartment. But Virgil, who has accommodated himself quite well as a blind man, is now a very inadequate sighted man, who can't read or write or interpret even the most basic social signals. He's miserable trying to learn how to see again, and the relationship goes into a tailspin.
Much of the dialogue, during these dreary lovers' quarrels, focuses on blindness in love and living with one's blind spots and limitations (she has a too-symbolic chunk of unfinished sculpture she started in college). Nathan Lane pops up in the role of a wise and funny counsellor, the sort of part that usually goes to Robin Williams. "Isn't seeing wonderful," he says to Virgil, when he takes him to a strip club. "Seeing sucks," says a disconsolate Virgil. Roll over, George Berkeley, and tell John Locke the news.
Director Irwin Winkler (Night and the City)is rarely better than pedestrian in handling this story. At worst, the dramatic elements are plain clumsy.
The most interesting moments in At First Sight have nothing to do with the love story, but rise instead from Virgil's struggles with the social rules of seeing. What do facial expressions mean? How do we learn to look away from the homeless? There are a few moments that try to capture Virgil's viewpoint -- lights, glare, moving shapes -- that are as useful as anything the movie has to say about the conventions of seeing. Given the rich visual opportunities of such a topic, it seems a great waste the movie wasn't directed by someone with a more astute eye. Conrad Alton, Filmbay Editor."
Seeing is believing
Veggiechiliqueen | 12/03/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
""At First Sight" is based on the true story of a man who was blind for nearly his entire life due to cataracts and retinitis pigmentosa before having his sight temporarily restored. Based on an essay by British neurologist Oliver Sacks (who also penned Awakenings), the film follows stressed-out New York architect Amy (Mira Sorvino) as she attempts to "relax" at a weekend spa retreat. At the reception desk, she frowns at the list of activities and settles on daily massages instead. At her first session, she meets Virgil (Val Kilmer), a man with a truly magic touch. To her embarrassment, Amy breaks down crying as someone actually takes the time to touch her for the first time in a long time. Virgil, blind since childhood, excels as a massage therapist and enjoys hockey. Sensitive, constantly smiling and outgoing, he doesn't view blindness as a disability. Amy and Virgil begin seeing each other, but his prickly, overprotective sister Jennie keeps reminding her of Virgil's limitations as a blind man.
When Amy returns to New York and finds a doctor that is a pioneer in restoring vision, she urges Virgil to consider having the operation. This is the start of a very honest and painful dialog between Virgil, Jennie, and Amy; as a child, Virgil was subjected to every manner of faith healing in an attempt to cure his blindness. The remainder of the film deals with the aftermath of the surgery and the strain that Virgil's newfound sight places on his and Amy's relationship. After being blind for decades, Virgil's brain is unable to cope with the new flood of visual input, and he is only able to "see" by touch for the first few days. It's a refreshing twist on Hollywood portrayals of narrators succumbing to blindness and the sentiment of "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Instead, director Irwin Winkler and the gorgeous cinematography by John Seale paint Virgil's world of darkness in terms of touch, sound (the gorgeous rainstorm that allows Virgil to "see" Amy puts Daredevil (Director's Cut)'s CGI rain effect to shame!!) and smell (Virgil initially describes Amy as smelling like cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla, to which his sister says it sounds like he's describing a coffeecake). His post-op world is one of blurry, super-saturated colors, sudden movements, and confusion, and similar to Asperger's Syndrome, Virgil has to learn to "read" facial expressions and visual cues.
Winkler deftly balances the romantic story with the medical one, although the film feels a touch long and could have benefitted from some editing (I wasn't crazy about Nathan Lane's cameo, although I love him in other films such as The Birdcage ). Kilmer handles pre- and post-op Val with tenderness and insight; as a blind man, he relies on his other senses like touch and hearing to guide him, but sight proves more treacherous and difficult than living in a familiar world of darkness. Sorvino's Amy was sweet and supportive, although at times she has difficulty understanding why Virgil would choose his old life over his new one. The beautiful visual metaphors and the love theme "Love Is Where You Are" by Diana Krall only add to the tender appeal of "At First Sight.""