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Dustin Putman

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At First Sight (1999)
3 Stars

Directed by Irwin Winkler
Cast: Val Kilmer, Mira Sorvino, Kelly McGillis, Nathan Lane, Steven Weber, Bruce Davison.
1999 – 128 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 22, 1999.

Like the wonderful 1990 drama, "Awakenings," starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, "At First Sight, " directed by Irwin Winkler, is inspired by a true story documented by physician Oliver Sacks. Since "Awakenings" was so very good, and made my top ten list the year it was released, "At First Sight" is not quite as strong since it is not directed with as sure a hand as Penny Marshall, but is still an intelligent and vibrantly-acted drama.

The film begins as Amy (Mira Sorvino), a stressed-out New York architect, decides to take some time off and travel upstate to the country. At the hotel she is staying at, she makes a massage appointment and after a long, soothing session which ends with her crying as a release of emotions, she strikes up a conversation with the handsome masseur Virgil (Val Kilmer), only to find out later that he is actually blind. Amy doesn't really care if he has a handicap or not, and begins to spend time with him more and more until they finally start to fall in love. Once she has returned to New York, Amy begins to research on Virgil's certain type of retinal blindness, which he has had since three years of age, and out of a stroke of luck, comes into contact with a doctor (Bruce Davison) who believes he can repair Virgil's sight, even though there have only been thirty similar cases in history. At first reluctant, Virgil finally travels with Amy to NYC and agrees to the surgery, much to the hesitance of his overbearing, but loving older sister (Kelly McGillis). Ultimately, the surgery is a success, but problems arise since Virgil cannot relate to what he sees, since he has never visually seen anything before, only touched objects. He moves into Amy's apartment and she is eager to stand by him, but Virgil's maladjustment begins to put a strain on their relationship.

On the basis of the overall story, "At First Sight" is indeed a film that has been done many times before, and owes a great deal to its predecessor, "Awakenings." What will happen throughout the film can also be easily telegraphed in advance. However, what helps "At First Sight" rise above this predictability is in the mature and intelligent relationship that develops between Virgil and Amy. Usually, romantic pictures are of the shameless puppy-dog sort (the recent Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan-starrer "You've Got Mail" immediately pops to mind), but with this film, I grew to care more about the characters and their plight.

The film starts off noticably well as Amy travels up north and first meets Virgil. The massaging sequences were strangely erotic, maybe even more so than the later actual "love scenes," and as their romantic involvement quickly developed, the film was both entertaining and sweet, and there was clearly a lot of chemistry between the two. These joyous moments early on balanced out well with the later scenes in which their relationship is seriously tested due to a contrast in the life styles that they have always known, with Virgil completely used to being blind and having a comforting, peaceful life in the country to Amy's eventful life in the "big city."

The other major compliment that must be given to the film are the nearly flawless performances across the board. Val Kilmer, usually cast in the "macho" type of role, was always believable as a blind person, and playing his character was probably a little more tricky than it appears. It was up to Kilmer to not come off as someone to pity, but to sympathize with, and he pulled it off. Mira Sorvino, who made a spectacular debuting splash in 1995's hilarious Woody Allen comedy, "Mighty Aphrodite," for which she won a well-deserved Oscar as a kind-hearted, but ditzy hooker, is a standout here. Although she has made some mediocre film choices since then (1997's "Mimic," 1998's "The Replacement Killers"), she always has managed to come out unscathed, and it is with "At First Sight" that she finally has another juicy role to play. In a truthful climactic scene set in Amy's apartment between she and Virgil, Sorvino proves to be one of the most gifted young actresses around today, and has a flare for both comedic and dramatic pieces. Kelly McGillis, who could have easily come off as the "bad," one-dimensional sister, instead is also given an unexpectedly multifaceted character to play as a woman who may be overly protective but simply cares for her brother. Finally, Nathan Lane, who is usually a little too over-the-top, is appropriately restrained as a vision therapist.

The one misstep of "At First Sight" is in its treatment of the medical procedure done on Virgil. Very little is ever said or discussed concerning it, and when the surgery occurs, it is so briefly glimpsed at that it is impossible to see what is being done to his eyes. Perhaps the reason this aspect of the film was not more in-depth was that the makers were afraid it would gross out audiences, but I would personally take realism, even if it is graphic, any day over simply giving the explanation of the surgery the cold shoulder. In "Awakenings," the patients and illness were far more satisfyingly portrayed.

Because of how strong the screenplay, written by Steve Levitt, is in the way it deals with the main relationship, and because of the fabulous performances from Kilmer and Sorvino, the film's few problems can be swept over to the side. The adult way that the romance is depicted by director Irwin Winkler is, no doubt, in respect to the real-life couple that the film was inspired by, who are still together after many years (even though the setting of the film was changed to New York). Since January is usually the time of year that is known as the dumping ground from bad movies, "At First Sight" comes as a refreshing and sophisticated change of pace.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman