You would think that a TV movie version of Daniel Keyes’ popular novel “Flowers for Algernon” would have a hard time living up to the memory of “Charly,” the hard-hitting 1968 version of the story, which earned actor Cliff Robertson an Oscar. However, as straight-forward and sentimental as Jeff Bleckner’s directing and John Pielmeier’s script are, the telepic succeeds on the strength of a winning performance by Matthew Modine and Keyes’ brilliant story, which is a staple of junior high English classes.
A well-cast Modine stars as Charlie Gordon, a gentle, childlike man with a 68 I.Q., whose life is turned around when he becomes the subject of an intelligence-enhancing medical experiment. “You’ll fix my genes, and I’ll become a gene-ass,” he gleefully exclaims, and before long, he is quoting Shakespeare. However, with the newly found intelligence comes antagonism and hostility from his jealous co-workers at the bakery, who don’t like the changes they see in their naive friend.
Charlie’s realization that his friends used to laugh at, not with, him is only the first of his unhappy discoveries. He also begins to fall in love with Alice (“The Practice’s” Kelli Williams), who has understandable hesitations about having a relationship with her new and improved student.
Pic goes on to raise important issues about the ethics surrounding medical experiments, a topic that is even more relevant in the age of bio-engineering than it was when the book was first published. By the time Charlie begins to prepare himself for the “inevitable regression” of the experiment and the consequences of his short-lived romance with Alice, “Flowers for Algernon” earns many of the tears it will deservedly win from its Sunday night TV audience. Keep some industrial-strength hankies handy for when Charlie notes, “I don’t know which is worse … to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be and feel like you’re alone.”
Among the supporting players, Ron Rifkin is effective in the role of Charlie’s ambitious doctor and Bonnie Bedelia twists daggers in the heart as Charlie’s cold, unloving mother. But at the center of it all is Modine, who does a remarkable job of transforming himself from idiot to savant and back. Reminiscent of his performance in Alan Parker’s “Birdy” earlier on his career, the thesp brings the required simplicity and reasonable anger to the role of a man who is at once blessed and betrayed by modern science.
Also effective are music by Mark Adler, who must have listened to Randy Newman’s “Awakenings” soundtrack once too many, and Michael Fash’s honey-dipped photography. And let’s not forget Algernon, the film’s adorable and doomed lab rat, who gives the digital Stuart Little or Mr. Jingles from “The Green Mile” a run for their Swiss cheese.