Rated PG-13 - Running time: 2:08 - Released 1/15/99

For a film with such a talented cast, Irwin Winkler's At First Sight is surprisingly shallow. Starring Val Kilmer, Mira Sorvino, and Kelly McGillis, it tells the true story of a blind man whose sight is surgically restored. I have not read the story To See and Not See by Oliver Sacks, on which the film is based, but the treatment given to it by Steve Levitt betrays the fact that he is a newcomer to screenwriting. The dialogue, especially early on, is like that of an after-school special, with exaggerated characterizations and heavy-handed lessons about people with disabilities.

Kilmer is Virgil Adamson, a blind massage therapist who lives in upstate New York and is "taken care of" by his older sister, Jennie (McGillis). Though he appears to be in his thirties, she treats him like he can't make it across the room without her help. This co-dependent relationship sets us up for the predictable reaction to be played out when Virgil meets a woman.

Enter the woman: Amy Benic (Sorvino) is a stressed-out architect from New York City who must take a vacation to relax. She books a massage at the spa where Virgil works, and, though she doesn't realize he's blind, falls in love with him because he's so darned good at what he does. And he falls in love with her because, well, she let him put his hands all over her naked body. And she smelled good.

When Virgil brings Amy home, Jennie can hardly contain her disgust. Not only is Amy pretty, but the two actually seem happy together. The nerve! Then Amy tells Virgil about an article she read concerning a new surgical procedure that can possibly restore his sight. Virgil is put off (he spent many years being poked and prodded by well-meaning doctors, and has no desire to do it again), but realizes that if he gets the operation, he'll get to see Amy's hot bod. So he goes along.

Things don't go well at first. Virgil's vision is not crystal clear the first second he opens his eyes, so everyone goes ballistic. And of course, "the media" is there, shining bright lights in his eyes without the slightest concern for his welfare. But even after he can see better, he has problems: His father (Ken Howard), who deserted the family when Virgil was just a blind kid, wants to reconcile now that he can see again. His doctor (Bruce Davison) seems unsympathetic to his adjustment troubles. And Amy, who is getting tired of having to point out which is the fork and which is the spoon, is sharing romantic dances with her ex-husband (Steven Weber).

To tell the truth, this film is not all bad, and it gets better as it goes on. Kilmer's blind bit is believable, except that he feels the need to sport a big, toothy grin the whole time he's feeling his way around. Sorvino does some good work as the woman who must re-teach Virgil everything he knows. But the most believable, sensible performance, and the one that really saves the film, is Nathan Lane as Phil Webster, the quirky visual therapist. He shows Virgil that life is a matter of trial and error, whether one can see or not. When everyone else is walking on eggs so as not to upset Virgil, Phil encourages him to take risks, fail, and try again.

At First Sight struggles to have the impact of a film like Awakenings (another Oliver Sacks book), and it succeeds at making a sighted person think about the real difficulty of adjusting one's brain to the new introduction of visual stimuli. But this trite screenplay can only take that so far, and that's a shame. ***½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

See Current Reviews

See FilmQuips Archive