Sidney Lumet is a great director who is past his prime. Four
decades ago, he received a well deserved Academy Award nomination for
one of his first films, 12 ANGRY MEN. Three decades ago, he gave us
THE PAWNBROKER. Two decades ago, when at the top of his form, he
directed the hard edged SERPICO, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, and NETWORK. And a
decade ago, he came up with THE VERDICT.
In the 1990s, Lumet's films (Q & A, A STRANGER AMONG US, GUILTY AS
SIN, and NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN) have all been disappointments, even
if each has had parts worth treasuring. His latest, CRITICAL CARE,
fits firmly within his repertoire for this decade.
Although masquerading as a black comedy, CRITICAL CARE is actually
a long polemic against the efficacy of our health care system. Set in
an intensive care ward, the picture features doctors and hospitals
interested in keeping terminally ill patients alive so long as their
health insurance holds out. A side story has two warring half-sisters,
played by Kyra Sedgwick and Margo Martindale, wanting to carefully
adjust when their dying father perishes. Depending on the exact date
of death, one or the other will get his entire ten million dollar
James Spader is partially miscast as the overworked and oversexed
young resident, Dr. Werner Ernst. Spader is convincing as the latter,
but his perfect hair, fashion model looks, flawless attire, and his
relaxed demeanor makes it hard to believe that this is a guy who works
38 hours straight through. Dr. Ernst and Helen Mirren as Stella, the
head nurse, are the show's conscience. The patients, who either beg to
die or are long-term vegetables, have no one but this lone doctor and
nurse to care about them. The doctors in charge of the hospital are
interested only in the health insurance money, and the other doctors'
sole motive is promotion.
Filmed by David Watkin with oversaturated whites to emphasize the
clean room atmosphere of the hospital and scripted by Richard Dooling
and Steven S. Schwartz with Orwellian logic, the self-absorbed film has
strong pretensions. The dialog, although there are quite a few nice
one-liners, generally falls flat. Never quite entertaining, rarely
enlightening, and only sporadically funny, the movie seems destined for
a limited market.
The hospital has two role models. One is a Dr. Hofstader, played
with military precision by Philip Bosco, who claims that, "seeing
patients is a waste of time." He has his patients all hooked up with
probes that feed into cyberspace. His diagnosis is done in a room full
of computers. And he carries two cell phones wherever he goes so he
can simultaneously consult with two of his colleagues throughout the
world while talking with someone else next to him.
In complete contrast is an almost unrecognizable Albert Brooks as
Dr. Butz, a chronic alcoholic, who lives in an old office with dusty
file cabinets. Looking in his late 60s, Dr. Butz forgets everything
except how to make money.
In one episode, Dr. Ernst argues against unnaturally prolonging
the life of one of his permanently vegetative patients by yet another
medical procedure. "If he's going to die, why should we proceed," Dr.
Ernst asks. "Where have you been all your life?" Dr. Butz shouts back.
"It's called revenue!" The patient, it turns out, has three health
insurance policies which came through with $112,000 for last month's
bill. Case closed as far as Dr. Butz is concerned.
In a great twist, Dr. Butz readily admits that he personally has
no health insurance because he doesn't want to be artificially kept
alive like his patients. The show has a similarly clever ending, but
none of this makes up for the tedium of most of the picture. Rather
than seeing CRITICAL CARE, go and rent one of Lumet's great films.
I'd start with 12 ANGRY MEN.
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes