MOVIE REVIEW : A Slick 'Vital Signs' Races Past Substance

The people who made "Vital Signs" (citywide) know how to make their little medical school ensemble into a half-believable community. They let us catch things on the fly, racing down a corridor, wheeling through a classroom as it seethes with inside jokes and vernacular. The movie is about five med school classmates in their roughest year--the third, when they get hands-on medical experience--and it's done at a pell-mell, breathless clip.

Director Marisa Silver is a fan of Howard Hawks and, like Hawks, she directs drama as if it were comedy. She keeps her camera at a distance, cranks up the pace, keeps things popping. The movie catches some of the offhand way people who've known each other a while--or been thrown together in the pressure cooker of a tough job or school--communicate.

It's crammed with incident. Two students, Michael (Adrian Pasdar) and Kenny (Jack Gwaltney) slug it out for top spot. Two others (Jane Adams and Tim Ransom) fall in love, and the fifth, Gina (Diane Lane), is the class knockout, torn between persistent Michael and a smug doctor (Bradley Whitford). There's a paterfamilias around: Jimmy Smits as glib, sexy Dr. David Redding. And there's an earth mother: Norma Aleandro as Henrietta Walker--a weird name considering her accent--who's struggling through cancer therapy with smoky-voiced jokes and weary shrugs. Perhaps these two are psychically linked. In the recent "Gross Anatomy," a clunkier variation of the same med school plot, Christine Lahti played both the Smits and Aleandro roles, the mentor and the fatally ill earth mother.

There's a father-son conflict between Michael and his star-surgeon dad: insinuating William Devane. And there's an angry wife, forced into cocktail waitress-hood by her husband's ambition (Laura San Giacomo, as wasted as she was in "Pretty Woman").

The movie has everything, which may be its problem. This brisk, whipped-up show has no rough edges. Cinematographer John Lindley, who shot "Field of Dreams" and "The Stepfather," makes all the surfaces gleam; even the glass looks like Formica. Yet there's something jaded about the movie. It's like a fast-talking smoothie, whose curriculum vitae is a stunner and who keeps telling you everything you want to hear. After a while, you don't want to hear it anymore.

The actors aren't bad. Pasdar, Adams, Gwaltney, Ransom and Smits have lots of moments, and Diane Lane as Gina is almost blood-boilingly beautiful: the kind of woman who cooly generates 60 crushes just by walking into a classroom.

But, when a film is executed as well as this and still winds up seeming hollow and forced, it's probably a victim of its own assumptions. "Vital Signs" springs from a long line of upscale education derbies--James Bridges' "The Paper Chase" is probably the prototype--in which the smart, clean and pretty vie for the prizes of professionalism and get humanized in the process. These movies try to say that success isn't everything, but there's usually a catch: You have to achieve success before seeing through it. "Vital Signs" doesn't question the ethics or goals of the medical profession itself. It treats its plot like a horse race, in which the important thing is that nobody fouls and the horses learn to love and respect each other.

The two non-collaborating writers seem to have wildly dissimilar temperaments: Larry Ketron wrote "Fresh Horses" and Jeb Stuart wrote "Die Hard" and "Leviathan." But director Silver shows talent: pacing, energy, mood and rhythm. Halfway through, there's a wonderful little moment that suggests the kind of feelings the movie should have pushed, the kind of life it doesn't have. Adams' Suzanne and Ransom's Bobby, two best friends of opposite sex, suddenly tumble into bed and wake up the next morning. They're surprised to be there, tentative, a little uncomfortable. The light is fresh but pitiless. Their reactions, then and later, are exactly right.

But "Vital Signs" (MPAA rated R for sex and nudity) doesn't build up moments like this; it just races by them. It's like a pro who thinks there's a time for everything--sentiment, suspense, sermons--and keeps everything rigidly in place and on schedule. Like the students who are monomaniacs about their career, it wants to get there first, before slowing down to show us a little heart.

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