Friday October 31, 1997
It says more about the intellectual vitality of Hollywood and the passive mood of the country than it does about 73-year-old Sidney Lumet that his excoriating satire of television, the 1976 "Network," is followed two decades later by as tepid a parody of the U.S. health system as "Critical Care."
"Network," like many studio films of the '70s, was punishing in its irreverence, isolating its targets--ratings-obsessed TV executives, amoral careerists, megalomaniacal anchors, opportunistic activists and everything else about the medium that made screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky madder than hell--and attacking them with the precision of smart bombs. It was a cynical, zero tolerance assault on an industry being driven by greed toward social irresponsibility, and one so dead-on in its vision that it's come to be regarded as a work of prescient social criticism.
By contrast, "Critical Care," set in an intensive care unit where patients exist on life support, is a bowl of hospital oatmeal. It's a mushy combination of doctor jokes, clumsy fantasies and over-earnest moralizing about issues so obvious that people in the health care industry may be its best audience. The film has its own set of worthy targets--bottom-line hospital administrators, dispassionate lawyers and insurance companies, egocentric doctors and misguided relatives of dying patients--but no one is seriously hurt.
The script, a first effort by television producer Steven Schwartz, tracks these issues by spending a few days with Dr. Werner Ernst (James Spader), a bright second-year resident in the heroic care unit of a spotless, state-of-the-art urban hospital. He looks after patients for whom all hope is lost, but who--providing they are fully insured--are kept alive anyway. These are not merely people in a persistent state of vegetation, they're cash cows.
Dr. Ernst is looking forward to doing his final year of residency in the hospital's high-tech wing, where the future of medicine is being configured with holograms and research grants. But after he goes to bed with the daughter of one of his patients, and gives her illicit advice about pulling the plug on Dad, he is caught in a career-threatening legal web.
Seems that Felicia Potter (Kyra Sedgewick) and her Bible-hugging half-sister Connie (Margo Martindale) are fighting over a potential $10-million inheritance. If their father dies in the next three weeks, all the money goes to Felicia. If he lingers beyond that, the prize goes to Connie. Felicia, with videotaped evidence, is blackmailing the doctor, giving him the options of pulling the plug himself, helping her convince the court it should be done legally or having his ethical lapse, among other things, exposed.
Spader and Sedgewick seem to be acting in different movies, even when they're in the same scenes. Ernst cracks the occasional joke, but Spader otherwise plays him with dead and deadening seriousness. Meanwhile, Felicia is played with such high vamp voltage by Sedgewick that she's barely more than a blur of giggles, lipstick, legs and bright pastel leather.
The bulk of the film's laughs are provided by a heavily made-up Albert Brooks, playing the hospital's alcoholic, absent-minded administrator. And Helen Mirren brings honest humanity to her role of an intensive care nurse tempted to honor the wishes of a patient begging for death. At the other extreme is Wallace Shawn, repulsively unfunny as Satan's emissary in a series of ill-conceived fantasy sequences.
It's understandable, on some level, how the ideas behind "Critical Care" drew Lumet's interest. In the 40 years since his first film, "12 Angry Men," no American director has tried harder to stay on the course of a social dramatist, or succeeded more often. But the heyday of Hollywood social drama has passed, and the pickings among finance-able, issue-oriented scripts are slim.
"Network" was a major studio movie, with full resources, a large, rich cast, a script by a mature, productively cynical veteran, and a wide audience eager for pointed entertainment. "Critical Care" has none of those advantages. Schwartz's script may have stood out for its subject matter, and for that, the younger Lumet might have given it an E for effort. But it's hard to imagine him making it.
Critical Care, 1997. R, for language and a scene of sexuality. A Live Film and Mediaworks production, released by Live Entertainment. Director Sidney Lumet. Producers Lumet, Steven S. Schwartz. Script Schwartz. Editor Tom Swartwout. Cinematographer David Watkin. Production designer Philip Rosenberg. Costumes Dona Granata. Music Michael Convertino. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. James Spader as Dr. Ernst. Kyra Sedgewick as Felicia Potter. Albert Brooks as Dr. Butz. Helen Mirren as Nurse Stella. Wallace Shawn as Furnaceman.