"Charly" is a flawed, maudlin, poignant, unintentionally laughable, heavy handed, sometimes grotesque, inescapably dated, unforgettable movie.
"Charly" is the story of a mentally retarded adult man (Cliff Robertson) who is experimented on by two scientists, Dr. Strauss and Dr. Nemur (Lilia Skala and Leon Janney) Each is terrifying. Skala forces smiles through clenched teeth and a German accent; Janney is a humorless, deep-voiced skull. These scientists have been able to dramatically increase the intelligence of Algernon, a mouse. Without so much as a signed, informed-consent release form, Charly is experimented on, as well. He, too, becomes dramatically more intelligent.
Newly smart Charly falls in love with his teacher, Alice Kinian (Claire Bloom.) She rejects him at first, but they connect. Shortly thereafter, Algernon dies. The same fate awaits Charly, but he will lose his intelligence first. He dismisses Alice, and, unlike Bette Davis in "Dark Victory," dies off camera.
Like many other reviewers here, I read "Flowers for Algernon" and saw this movie as a child. I never forgot either. I remember, even as a kid, feeling embarrassed for being so moved by the story, because it is so blatantly manipulative. And yet it is undeniably powerful.
I resent the film's masochistic wallow in Charly's victimization by his coworkers. One scene of Gimpy (Edward McNally) instigating trouble at the bakery where Charly works, would have done the job of communicating the torment of being a retarded man. But the movie includes several such scenes: Gimpy and the gang humiliating Charly with bread dough packed into his locker at work, with a juke box trick, by telling him to go stand on a deserted street corner at night and wait for snow, and with a dough machine. Finally, when Charly becomes more intelligent, they gang up on him and fire him. These vignettes have the ring of truth, but their repetition only serves to encourage the viewer to wallow in pity for Charly, and to become enraged at his tormentors.
The movie is very much of its time. The bakery villains are working class white men; Straus and Nemur, and their colleagues in a conference audience who shoot questions at Charly, are soulless scientists and authority figures: classic 1960s villains, reflecting the obsessions, paranoias, resentments and scapegoating of sixties hippies. The psychedelic sequence, where a wounded Charly deals with Alice's rejection of him by taking drugs, having orgies, and growing his hair long, is a goofy time capsule of 1968's values, obsessions, and grandiosity. The Ravi Shankar soundtrack, that makes use of flutes, harpsichords, and sitar, is obtrusive in its shouting, "1968!" The split screen effect also calls attention to itself. The only stars who could carry split screen off were Rock Hudson and Doris Day.
Cliff Robertson won an Academy Award for his performance as Charly, and it is that kind of performance -' an actor playing a retarded man -' that was so harshly mocked in "Tropic Thunder." The fact is that Robertson creates two believable, very different characters: retarded Charly and intelligent Charly. When his "non-retarded" voice first breaks through, when he asks Alice if her fiancé loves her, it's like a teenage boy's voice breaking.
Claire Bloom exhibits her usual restrained sexuality and hints at an inner disciplinarian dominatrix. When smart Charly first lunges at her, she calls him a "stupid moron," which is completely unbelievable, but serves the movie's need to be as maudlin as possible. The romance between Charly and Alice is disturbing to anyone with a sense of the ethics of teacher-student relationships, but the film isn't interested in exploring this relationship with any seriousness. Rather, it just wants to extract as many tears as possible. Once Charly and Alice connect, the camera moves as far away from them as possible. As dewy landscape shots -' parks, ponds, toy trains -' parade across the screen, Robertson and Bloom perform voice-over readings of what sounds like Rod McKuen poetry. It's all so 1960s, so dated, so much of a cheat of the viewer. The film is very willing to spend lots of time in close observations of Charly's workmates tormenting him, but has no time to develop a real relationship between Charly and Alice.
The movie undercuts its own message in its final scenes. When Charly realizes that he will become retarded again, he is haunted by terrifying, disturbing ghosts of his past, retarded self. These retarded-Charly-ghosts have no dignity, no value. If the movie wants to tell us that retarded people are primarily people, just like anyone else, it undercuts that message by making smart Charly's past and future retarded self so disturbing.
For all of its flaws, this is a movie very worth seeing. There are genuinely touching scenes, such as when Charly helps a retarded man clean up after dropping glasses in a bar.
Too, the film raises profound questions, questions that anyone who has lost a loved one to Alzheimer's has asked: where is the essence of the soul? In the intellect? Or somewhere impossible to locate? Finally, "Charly" exerts a real tug on the heart. Whether that is because schlock is more powerful than art, or because there is art here under all the schlock, is topic for a dissertation, not a relatively short review.
Review by Danusha_Goska Save Send Delete from the Internet Movie Database.