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Sometimes you have to dig deep for a new current event to exploit. The thriller "Awake" opens with a lesson on the dangers of anesthesia, claiming that a number of people in operating rooms under anesthesia remain paralyzed but "awake" to sound and feeling during the medical procedure. This little-known phenomenon remains central to the movie -- Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen) screams things in voice-over like "It's only pain!" while being sawed open. But what's the movie saying — that if anesthesia doesn't work for some people, none of us should have it?

Writer-director Joby Harold, in a somewhat comically earnest way, has included so many issues and plot developments in his potboiler that he manages to baffle himself. In "Awake," wealthy Clay needs a heart transplant. So he goes under the knife of a suspect surgeon (Terrence Howard) on the advice of a suspect girlfriend (Jessica Alba). He then wanders the hospital corridors in a ghostly state during the operation while also feeling every incision and stitch, eventually having a Hallmark moment with his mom on the astral plane about his childhood with an abusive, drunken father and trying to stop a crime in the process. But, whoops, it's all useless because no one can hear a spirit — except of course the poor audience.

The idea of a person having to feel open-heart surgery while not being able to move or cry out is an interesting premise, but I suspect Harold or someone else included it only in a feeble attempt to adhere to the fashion of anchoring the movie in current events. Clay's condition has the least impact just when you expect it to have the most. During the operation, Clay hears things his doctors, thinking he's under the gas, wouldn't want him to — and yet nothing is made of this. Astoundingly, the plot is resolved without ever using the very scenario from which it develops.

The time given to Clay's astral projection is likewise mystifying. It has absolutely no effect on the plot, which has at its core the basis for a decent thriller. As it is, "Awake" and its viewers are only so whenever Alba's young body is being exposed. The poor girl can't act, but her cleavage deserves an Oscar. Ultimately, the movie, like Clay, ends up wandering down hallways screaming things no one can understand. The only thing you think about as the credits roll is that it's too bad you can't sue writer-directors for malpractice. (R) 84 min. S



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