If Giorgio Armani doesn’t start making power suits out of camouflage material, he is missing a good bet, because successful professionals are fast becoming the most endangered on-screen species since Bambi’s mother. First in “Regarding Henry,” now in “The Doctor” (at selected San Diego theaters), we are invited to relish the spectacle of a hard-driving hotshot finding out that there is more to life than insensitively bludgeoning your way to the top.
Yet, despite plot parallels that uncannily extend to even minor points, the surprisingly good news is that “The Doctor” is the opposite of “Regarding Henry” in almost every respect. More honest and more effectively acted and directed than its predecessor, it shows how far quality work can go in redeeming a plot that is as pat and predictable as they come.
Most of the credit for this must go to director Randa
Haines and star William Hurt, who last collaborated on “Children of a Lesser God.” Clearly working in tandem here, they have made “The Doctor” a film that manages to be decent and sensitive for quite some time before finally succumbing to the inevitable dynamics of its plot and falling into the trough of sentimentality. After all, a film that accurately advertises itself as “A story about a surgeon who became an ordinary patient and then became an extraordinary doctor” can only escape its fate for so long.
When we first meet Dr. Jack MacKee (Hurt), fate is the last thing on his mind. A top heart and lung man, he is glimpsed in his glory, dominating his operating room like Daryl Gates dominates the LAPD. A brisk, no-nonsense workaholic who is prone to cracking wise and living by the tidy credo, “Get in, fix it, get out,” he is filled with the inescapable knowledge of his own self-importance.
Palling around with an equally infantile practitioner (Mandy Patinkin) and openly mocking the only decent medical man he knows (Adam Arkin), Dr. MacKee is, in short, the classic Big Doctor, a picture of breezy macho arrogance who sees no danger on the horizon except the dread possibility of, perish the thought, personally caring about the condition of his patients.
Of course, the God of Fair Play, who seems to reside mainly in Hollywood, has quite another scenario in mind. After the most sinister cough this side of “Camille,” Dr. MacKee goes to visit a throat specialist (Wendy Crewson) who is if anything more implacable than he is. “Doctor,” she says in a voice frigid enough to blight an entire orchard, “you have a growth.”
Indeed he does, and you don’t need any fancy diagnostic tools to guess: a) that its malignant and b) what will happen next. Dr. MacKee is about to take a radical change in status from being a lordly doctor to being a lowly patient, and the trip is going to change his view of both his life and his profession.
Schematic as this journey sounds (and in fact is), several factors combine to make it both involving and honorable. For one thing, unlike being shot in the head and not recognizing your wife, the experience of being a patient dehumanized by medical routine is a common one that most adults of a certain age can identify with, and that spine of reality is a crucial one.
Also, Robert Caswell’s script (based on a nonfiction book by a doctor who had a similar experience, albeit at age 70) makes the journey of redemption a fairly torturous one. Alienated from his sympathetic but frustrated wife (Christine Lahti) and resistant to the simplest acts of caring, Dr. MacKee fights to remain a colossal pain in the neck for a surprisingly long time, and that, too, adds some welcome grit to the proceedings.
And as the ever-abrasive Jack MacKee, the filmmakers couldn’t have made a better choice than William Hurt. Few actors are better at projecting distance and self-absorption than he is, and none of those can remain as likable while they’re doing it. Though Hurt’s Dr. MacKee has to crack rather too many jokes (courtesy, perhaps, of Disney executives worried about the film getting too serious for general audiences), he makes his character’s change of heart as believable as circumstances allow.
Believability is also the keynote of the work of Randa Haines. In her hands “The Doctor” (rated PG-13) becomes a study in even-handed assurance, largely because by all appearances she has not only insisted on but achieved a high standard of believability from all her actors, not just Hurt. Scenes that would have come off as saccharine or pretentious in the hands of another director have a welcome integrity. There is a lot to forgive about “The Doctor,” but acting and directing make it easy to do.
‘The Doctor’ William Hurt: Dr. Jack MacKee Christine Lahti: Anne Elizabeth Perkins: June Ellis Mandy Patinkin Dr.: Murray Caplan Adam Arkin: Dr. Eli Blumfield Charlie Korsmo: Nicky Wendy Crewson: Dr. Leslie Abbott A Touchstone Pictures presentation in association with Silver Screen Partners IV, released by Buena Vista. Director Randa Haines. Producer Laura Ziskin. Executive producer Edward S. Feldman. Screenplay by Robert Caswell, based on the book “A Taste of My Own Medicine,” by Ed Rosenbaum MD. Cinematographer John Seale, A.C.S. Editors Bruce Green, A.C.E., Lisa Fruchtman. Costumes Joe I. Tompkins. Music Michael Convertino. Production design Ken Adam. Art director William J. Durrell Jr. Set decorator Gary Fettis. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.