A lot of boiling and scraping has been required to bring Oliver Sacks’s 1973 case studies of postencephalitic patients–victims of the “sleeping sickness” epidemic of the 20s–to the screen, and many of the standard Hollywood blunt instruments are used to perform this task: changing Sacks himself into an American with a different name (Robin Williams), concentrating almost exclusively on a single patient (Robert De Niro), and scenes and emotional reactions that seem designed at times to duplicate the successes of Rain Man and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (among other films). Director Penny Marshall (Big) often aims for slick effects, and Steven Zaillian’s script helps this process along by simplifying Sacks’s book to the point of banality. But the material is still powerful, and the offbeat story of the patients remains both engrossing and moving even after all this abridgment. One needs to raise certain questions about Sacks’s own talent for poeticizing neurological disorders, but at the same time it is difficult not to be affected by his talent. Randy Newman contributed the score, and John Heard, Julie Kavner, Penelope Ann Miller, and Max von Sydow costar. (Starts Thursday, December 20, Esquire)

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