A would-be psychological thriller without much psychology and even fewer thrills, “Awake” is more likely to put you to sleep.
In novice writer-director’s Joby Harold’s script, Hayden Christensen, who seems to be growing more dully inexpressive with every role, plays Clay Beresford, a young Wall Street whiz kid with a bad ticker, sad memories of his father’s accidental death in a fall down the stairs of their palatial Manhattan apartment (wearing a Santa suit, no less), and a secret girlfriend, Samantha Lockwood (Jessica Alba), who just happens to be the executive assistant to his domineering mother Lilith (Lena Olin), who’d be furious that her golden boy had taken up with the help. Sam’s getting a bit tired of having to hide their relationship from Lilith, while Clay is understandably nervous at the thought of his prospective heart transplant; he and his cardiologist Dr. Jack Harper (Terrence Howard) have been waiting for a donor organ for nearly a year since Jack saved Beresford after his first heart attack, and become close pals in the interval.
The plot kicks in when Clay finally confronts his mother with word of his relationship with Sam, and when Lilith reacts badly, marries the girl in a hastily-arranged ceremony with Jack serving as best man. No sooner do they climb into the sack for a honeymoon celebration than Clay’s pager buzzes: a suitable heart has arrived. Lickety-split, Clay’s on the operating table with Jack’s knife hovering over him, Harper’s smiling assistants Puttnam (Fisher Stevens, who also produced) and Carver (Georgina Chapman) at his side, and a smarmy last-minute replacement anesthesiologist named Larry Lupin (Christopher McDonald), who also happens to be a lush. Lilith, meanwhile, is upset not only over the rushed nuptials, but the fact that her son’s insisted that the mediocre Harper should perform the operation rather than her hand-picked specialist, the arrogant Dr. Neyer (Arliss Howard).
And two things quickly emerge. One is that Clay remains conscious of what’s happening even after being put under—he feels the cut of the knife, for instance. And the other is that it’s revealed a murder plot is afoot. Who the villains are, the methods they intend to use, and the motive behind their plan, are all revealed in a series of flashbacks and limbo-like confrontations that Clay experiences while under.
It’s possible that a passable suspense film could have been constructed on this scenario, but Harold’s is a mess. It fails in the most elementary ways, jettisoning its supposed raison d’etre—the “anesthetic awareness” hook—as soon as it becomes inconvenient in favor of a loony let-Clay’s-spirit-run-rampant turn that clumsily reveals everything to us through jumbled flashbacks, conversations apparently set in a limbo between life and death, and sudden revelations about the past. And then it tosses in the sort of ludicrous twist that’s obligatory nowadays—one that predictably cheats on information given us upfront in order to provide a “happy” ending, which turns out to be a source of happiness only because it indicates the movie is over.
“Awake” is also very poorly made. Despite resumes of the cast, the performances are bottom-of-the-barrel. Christensen is stiff and dull. Alba, a bad actress, finds the character changes in her role beyond her. Olin, a good one, is defeated by the need to appear shrill and supportive all at once. Terrence Howard, who’s quickly squandering the good will he earned with a few striking turns, underplays as he did in “The Brave One,” to meager effect. And it’s no help that he’s frequently paired with Stevens, whose smirking presence quickly becomes oppressive. (It must be hard for a first-time director to tell his producer to tone it down.) Then there are McDonald and Arliss Howard, both actors in desperate need of damping down who are here given free rein. And on the technical side, the picture is blah—shot in tones that are alternately overlit and drab by Russell Carpenter, in settings that are often cramped and chintzy-looking. (Whoever suggested that it was a good idea to show ghost-Clay’s life ebbing away by clicking off the lights around him, moreover, deserves a good spanking. In a movie made in 1907 that might have been effective; a century later it’s a laughable device.)
One of the last lines in “Awake” comes when a character says, “There was no excuse for what we did.” It’s a sentiment Joby Harold and his co-conspirators in front of and behind the camera might take to heart.