Charly, a movie directed by Ralph Nelson in 1968 and adapted from the novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, is a moving case study of what could happen to a mentally retarded person who suddenly becomes a genius. Cliff Robertson won an Academy Award for Best Actor as he portrays Charly Gordon, a 30 year retarded man who has an IQ of 56. Charly's life is a simple one, yet he continually strives to improve it both socially and intellectually.
As the movie begins, Charly is working as a janitor in a bakery and going to night classes. In the evening, where Charly attends school, he is selected to participate in an experimental scientific research project that will improve his intellect. His teacher, Alice Kinnian, played by Claire Bloom, is very protective of Charly and he, as her pupil, does everything she asks of him. Prior to the surgery, Charly competes against a mouse, Algernon, to see who can get to the center of a maze first. Charly is dismayed when the Algernon wins and, when he finds out that Algernon beat him because he has already undergone the experimental surgery, Charly decides that he wants to have the surgery too.
During the day, Charly does his best to fit in with the other employees at work. Unfortunately, they see Charly as a good-natured moron and they constantly find ways to tease and humiliate Charly. It seems that they do not think that they are harming him, as he appears oblivious to the fact that they are using him for their own amusement. One scene that stands out is when they allow him to work one of the machines and the dough in it overflows. As Charly tries to push it back into the machine, he gets completely covered by the dough. After his surgery, this scene is dramatically juxtaposed against a similar one as he unwittingly humiliates them when one of their schemes backfire because he learns how to operate a similar machine in a few minutes.
Together, these two scenes create the most poignant moments in the film, in my opinion. While they laugh heartily at Charly's failures, they are dumbfounded and disheartened at his success. I believe that they felt better about themselves when they felt superior to Charly. However, when they could no longer make him the butt of their jokes, they become almost fearful of him and he loses their friendship. This is a very dramatic way of saying that it is very lonely at the top and gives insight to how those who are intellectually gifted are treated and how they feel. To further illustrate this, Charly is dismissed from his job after he shows the plant manager how the bakery could save a lot of money by improving its production. Just as the other employees became wary after Charly's intellect blossoms, the manager seems equally threatened by Charly and fires him.
Charly's intellect grows, he becomes an insatiable learner and reads books by the dozens. He also becomes enamored with his teacher, but he is emotionally unprepared when she refuses his advances. In dealing with this rejection, Charly leaves town and travels all over the country on a motorcycle, encountering many different types of experiences so that he can mature emotionally. Eventually, he wins over his teacher and they begin a romantic relationship.
Upon his return to town, he is informed that Algernon has lost his intellectual capacity and, ultimately, died. Knowing that this will happen to him as well, Charly embarks on a quest to prevent this from happening. He learns everything that the doctors know and begins his own research. Unfortunately, he discovers that it is not possible to inhibit the reversal of the downward process his intellect will experience. As he acknowledges that his own demise is inevitable, we are left to reflect upon whether each of us would want to be a shining star for a fleeting moment or a dusty moon that only reflects others' light.