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Television Review

Pathos Dilutes the Power of 'Flowers for Algernon'

February 19, 2000|STEVEN LINAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sentiment overtakes smarts in "Flowers for Algernon," an unabashed tear-jerker airing Sunday on CBS. Unfortunately, that's not a good thing.

Tears flow freely in this manipulative tale of a retarded young man (Matthew Modine) whose intelligence grows at a remarkable rate as the result of a daring experiment.

As Modine's gentle, occasionally ridiculed loner, Charlie Gordon, eventually discovers, "[t]he mind without the heart isn't worth a damn." In other words, a person's life should be measured in terms of values and ability to love, not mere IQ points.

A worthy message to impart, but one that ultimately is boiled in bathos.

Like most of us, Charlie seeks acceptance from peers, who instead take advantage of his genial disposition. That gradually changes after the ambitious Dr. Strauss (Ron Rifkin) conducts his unusual operation. Early on, Charlie is the butt of practical jokes. After four months, he's quoting philosophers, arguing with Strauss and angrily questioning the ethics of the educational process, particularly after discovering that regression is inevitable.

Along the way, he becomes deeply attached to Algernon, the tiny lab mouse able to run a maze with ease, and his supportive teacher Alice (Kelli Williams), who is grappling with emotional issues of her own. Given the rush of painful memories, he also seeks closure with the insensitive wretch of a mother (Bonnie Bedelia) who abandoned him as a child.

Based on the novel by Daniel Keyes, which previously yielded an Oscar-winning role for Cliff Robertson in 1968's "Charly," the script from John Pielmeier is not without its moving moments under Jeff Bleckner's direction. However, it tends to rip insistently on one's heartstrings, particularly toward the end.

And Modine, who was so engaging in 1998's "What the Deaf Man Heard," pours more conviction into his role as the brilliant Charlie than the mentally challenged one, whom he plays as far too boyish, wide-eyed and . . . mousy.

* "Flowers for Algernon" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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