Open-heart surgery: You really might want to sleep through it. That is the lesson learned in “Awake,” in which Hayden Christensen finds himself exactly that during the procedure. Featuring Jessica Alba and Terrence Howard as girlfriend and surgeon, respectively, debuting writer-director Joby Harold’s thriller does have an attention-getting plot hook, but piles on too many narrative gimmicks to maintain suspense or credibility. Opening on a traditionally cold box office weekend sans press screenings, pic will probably catch a modest number of Christmas shopping holdouts before quickly going under. Prospects for resuscitation in ancillary are healthier.
Having inherited an enormous Manhattan financial institution from his father, Clayton Beresford Jr. (Christensen) “owns half this city,” but is a nice guy who apparently specializes in creating jobs and housing and such. (A benevolent corporate lender: There goes disbelief suspension already.)
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Getting ready for work, he seems one-half of a perfect couple with beauteous fiance Sam (Alba). But their vibe chills when she drops him off at the doorstep of his mother Lilith (Lena Olin), who’s such a formidable and possessive force that he hasn’t dared tell her he’s romantically involved.
When he does break the news, Lilith’s reaction is of the hell-hath-no-fury, “It’s her or me” kind. Forced to choose, Clay impulsively decides to marry Sam that very night. His best man is Jack (Howard), a doc he’s befriended while on the waiting list for a heart transplant, as Clay’s ticker is congenitally weak.
Wouldn’t you know it, a heart with his rare blood type turns up just as the lovebirds are about to experience their first legal-wedlock snog.
They arrive at the hospital, where Jack and staff are waiting — but so is Lilith, insisting Clay use her chosen medico (Arliss Howard), who’s so top-of-the-line he’s tipped as the next surgeon general. Having already cut one apron string and feeling loyal to Jack, Clay refuses.
Opening titles inform that of the millions of people who go under anesthesia each year, a minuscule number experience “anesthesia awareness,” unable to move, speak or otherwise indicate they are wide awake. Clay, alas, proves to be one of the unlucky few.
Abetted by graphically faked surgery, squirm-inducing sequence that starts a half-hour in — and doesn’t really end until the film does — has Clay realizing with panic that he’s going to feel everything during the lengthy operation. (Why his weak ticker doesn’t just give out as a result is never addressed.)
This goes on too long, however, with Christensen’s task growing thankless as Clay’s monologue turns into something better suited for a radio play or an audiobook. It’s not at all helped by the sight of him padding around the hospital and beyond, barefoot in his hospital jammies — overhearing both present and past conversations and piecing together a conspiracy to let him die on the operating table.
How that scheme eventually doesn’t quite work out is due to one neat plot twist that affords Olin a strong finish. But with so many flashbacks and logic gaps piled upon a protagonist who in reality is flat on his back most of the time, “Awake” tricks up its basic premise till the sum trembles like a house of cards.
Though at times he looks awfully boyish for a captain of industry, Christensen is developing into a viable leading man — he’s appealing here, even if the material doesn’t do him any favors. Alba and Howard (who’s had six theatrical releases in 2007) are OK in roles defined by plot mechanics rather than any character detailing. Supporting turns are capable.
Russell Carpenter’s warm-toned widescreen lensing tops a polished production package. Shot two years ago, pic seems to have been sitting on the shelf for a while.