"At First Sight" is, ostensibly, about the distinction between looking and seeing. Tense Manhattan architect Amy Benic (Mira Sorvino) encounters massage therapist Virgil Adamson (Val Kilmer) in an upstate New York spa, where his hands unleash first appreciative moans and then cathartic tears. From that encounter, and the hesitant conversation that follows, it's obvious that they're expressing an instant attraction. It's only after Amy has really begun to see Virgil that she realizes he's blind.
From the get-go of their romance, Amy wants to have it both ways. She may put on a blindfold and stumble around trying to imagine his world, but Amy's real instinct is to "fix" Virgil, which means that in no time he agrees to undergo radical new surgery that restores his sight.
Director Irwin Winkler really finds his story when Virgil's bandages come off, with a hopeful doctor, expectant loved ones and an eager camera crew observing. The unveiling isn't the standard Hollywood medical miracle, but a moment of profound disorientation and disappointment: Virgil's brain can't comprehend the sensory information from his eyes.
Screenwriter Steve Levitt, who adapted Dr. Oliver Sacks' case study "To See and Not See" (included in his collection, "An Anthropologist on Mars"), focuses on the relationship between Amy and Virgil, based on caretaking and barely formed expectations, as he struggles to make use of his new vision.
Kilmer, who has shaken off most of his annoying acting tics -- displayed ad nauseam in "The Saint" -- really dives into Virgil's frustration and confusion about the unexpected repercussions of regaining sight, something he was taught from childhood to desire without question. Mira Sorvino also is strong as a woman who enjoys being overwhelmed by love, but barely realizes the effects of her actions.
Too bad then that "At First Sight" is the type of movie where every loose end, indeed every difficult conflict, gets tied up into a neat little bow. Corny platitudes and cloying scenes -- such as Amy's exaggerated pantomime of facial expressions -- mar a story whose underlying reality is less about happy endings than striking a balance between independence and needing other people.