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A driven Manhattan architect, Amy, relaxes at a resort and falls for the masseur, Virgil, blind since age 3 and assisted by his spinster sister. He helps Amy hear and sense the world, giving her new spirit and a burst of creativity. Over the sister's objections, Amy takes Virgil to New York for new, radical surgery. He regains his sight. He's disoriented and must learn to process these new images. Finding his place in a seeing world strains his relation with Amy; his absent father wants to connect with him now that he can see; then, retinal disease threatens to undo the surgery. Can love survive, will he find his new place and his old tranquillity, can Amy accommodate limits? Written by
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In this case, seeing is not believing, 6 out of 10
Between the tear-jerking excesses of two of the Christmas season's biggest movies, Patch Adams and Stepmom,you'd think that even the staunchest fans of those caring-and-sharing medical weepers would have reached their limit. But here comes At First Sight,which is not quite so life-and- death, but it's just as determined, in its modest way, to milk those tear ducts dry. In this case, though, the scientific context of the movie -- about a blind man who regains his sight with unexpected repercussions -- makes for a subject considerably more interesting than the romantic drama to which it is attached.
At First Sight is based on the writings of neurologist Oliver Sacks (the movie Awakenings was adapted from his work as well). It tells the true story of a 50-year- old blind man named Virgil who works as a YMCA masseur. On the eve of his wedding, he has cataracts removed, which allows him to see for the first time in 40 years. The experience, however, turns out to be more painful than joyful. As Sacks notes, the questions raised are profound, and have interested philosophers from John Locke to George Berkeley. Is sight a learned activity? What is the relationship between a world understood through touch and one understood through sight? The basic facts have been moulded into a trite romance that could easily fit between a pair of Harlequin covers. Unfortunately, the film glosses over the science and deliberately avoids some of the odder aspects of the original case. Virgil, on gaining his sight, also managed to pack on about 50 pounds; stress made him eat. Somehow, though, you don't expect a star of Val Kilmer's magnitude to take the Raging Bull route to character authenticity through poundage.
Instead, what we have is a story of a woman who discovers the perfect man, almost loses him, and then regains him. Mira Sorvino plays Amy Benic, a hot-shot New York architect, who heads off for a spa weekend in a charming New England village. Before she knows it, a hunky masseur has her calf muscles in his hands and has her melting like warm butter under his probing fingers. Entranced, she returns for further rubdowns until one day she approaches Mr. Magic Fingers as he's getting on a bus and discovers -- omigod! -- he's blind.
After a brief Internet search, Amy discovers that Virgil doesn't necessarily have to be blind, and she lands a top surgeon (Bruce Davison) to cure the problem. It turns out that Virgil is a bit reluctant, and his sister Jennie (Kelly McGillis) is downright hostile to the idea of improving her brother's lot. Love wins, though, and Virgil agrees to undergo the treatment. Soon, Virgil and Amy are sharing her New York apartment. But Virgil, who has accommodated himself quite well as a blind man, is now a very inadequate sighted man, who can't read or write or interpret even the most basic social signals. He's miserable trying to learn how to see again, and the relationship goes into a tailspin.
Much of the dialogue, during these dreary lovers' quarrels, focuses on blindness in love and living with one's blind spots and limitations (she has a too-symbolic chunk of unfinished sculpture she started in college). Nathan Lane pops up in the role of a wise and funny counsellor, the sort of part that usually goes to Robin Williams. "Isn't seeing wonderful," he says to Virgil, when he takes him to a strip club. "Seeing sucks," says a disconsolate Virgil. Roll over, George Berkeley, and tell John Locke the news.
Director Irwin Winkler (Night and the City)is rarely better than pedestrian in handling this story. At worst, the dramatic elements are plain clumsy.
The most interesting moments in At First Sight have nothing to do with the love story, but rise instead from Virgil's struggles with the social rules of seeing. What do facial expressions mean? How do we learn to look away from the homeless? There are a few moments that try to capture Virgil's viewpoint -- lights, glare, moving shapes -- that are as useful as anything the movie has to say about the conventions of seeing. Given the rich visual opportunities of such a topic, it seems a great waste the movie wasn't directed by someone with a more astute eye. Benjamin Miller, Filmbay Editor.
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