FILMS

Doctored lives

Two cynical surgeons have a change of heart

Brian D. Johnson August 12 1991
FILMS

Doctored lives

Two cynical surgeons have a change of heart

Brian D. Johnson August 12 1991

Doctored lives

FILMS

Two cynical surgeons have a change of heart

Hollywood has discovered the New Man. This summer there is an abundance of movies about cynical, snake-like careerists who are transformed by personal calamity into caring, sensitive men. Director Mike Nichols set the tone with Regarding Henry, a fable about a nasty lawyer who becomes a nice amnesiac after getting shot in the head. Now Hollywood has released two new movies about cocky, selfcentred surgeons who learn to love the little people after being bumped from their fasttrack careers. Doc Hollywood stars Michael J. Fox as a brash young surgeon who gets stranded in a backwoods town while on his way to a new job in a California clinic.

It is a bland, witless romantic comedy. The Doctor is a drama starring William Hurt as a heartless heart surgeon. He gets a taste of his own medicine when he contracts cancer. As an exposé of the hospital system, The Doctor is fascinating. But Hurt’s character is such a cold fish that, even after his transformation, he hardly seems worth caring about.

In Doc Hollywood, meanwhile, Fox is as charming as ever. He draws on another variation of the affable egotism that infused his character on TV’s Family Ties. But the movie is a lame and thoroughly predictable farce. Fox plays Ben, a doctor who leaves his hospital job in Washington to carve out a lucrative career in plastic surgery at a posh practice in Beverly Hills. On his way to the West Coast, he drives his vintage Porsche off the road and smashes through a white picket fence in Grady, S.C., a sleepy hamlet that calls itself the “squash capital of the South” (the vegetable, not the sport).

While a local mechanic disembowels his Porsche, the local judge sentences Ben to pay for the fence by helping out in the town clinic. In just a few days, Ben learns to appreciate the rustic locals. And he falls in love with the clinic’s ambulance driver, Lou Qulie Warner), an outspoken beauty who sees right through him. Meanwhile, he has to compete with Lou’s

dim-witted suitor (Woody Harrelson) and beat off amorous advances from the mayor’s daughter (Bridget Fonda).

The story sets up an extremely simplistic choice between big-time lust and small-town love, between Hollywood evil and homespun virtue. And it echoes Fox’s own evolution: after marrying actress Tracy Pollan in 1988, the actor sold his own Porsche and abandoned the hectic environment of Los Angeles to raise a

family in the sheltered climes of New England.

For British director Michael Caton-Jones, meanwhile, Doc Hollywood marks a maiden voyage into the American myth. Jones made a provocative feature debut with Scandal (1989), the story of Britain’s 1963 Profumo sex scandal. But with his first American film, he has taken a detour into cliché. Although Doc Hollywood caricatures Tinseltown as a symbol of greed and excess, it would be hard to find a more contrived product of Hollywood formula than the movie itself.

By contrast, The Doctor is a shrewd and serious piece of work. The drama’s intriguing

premise was inspired by A Taste of My Own Medicine, a 1988 book by Oregon physician Ed Rosenbaum that traces how his experience as a cancer patient turned his professional perspective upside down. The script, by Australian screenwriter Robert Caswell (A Cry In the Dark), offers a sharp critique of the medical bureaucracy, but it is heavily doped with sentiment.

Jack (Hurt) is a high-profile heart surgeon in a San Francisco hospital. He treats his profession like a sport. In the operating room, he flirts with the nurses and listens to rock music as he cuts. One day, Jack discovers that he has a tumor on his larynx. Despite his status at the hospital, he is treated like anyone else. He is refused a private room. He is confounded by delays. And he is shocked by the clinical detachment of the female specialist assigned to his case.

Director Randa Haines, who directed Hurt in Children of a Lesser God (1986), a sensitive drama about the hearing-impaired, skilfully constructs a patient’s-eye view of hospital care in The Doctor. The movie’s sets—gleaming corridors of chrome and glass—present an art-directed vision of a hospital as a sterile machine. Demoted from doctor to patient, Jack descends from his post in the operating-room penthouse to wait in the basement bowels of the radiology department.

There, he meets an attractive young cancer patient named June (Elizabeth Perkins), who has lost her hair to chemotherapy—with healthy eyebrows and an immaculately shaven head, she looks as fashionably bald as Sinead O’Connor. June serves as Jack’s platonic soul mate and teaches him the value of compassion. Meanwhile, his arms’-length marriage to Anne—an underwritten role gamely played by Christine Lahti—shows strain.

In The Doctor, getting cancer turns out to be not so bad after all. Once the hospital’s resident cynic, Jack becomes a crusader for patients’ rights. He discovers himself, conquers a mid-life crisis, spends time with a younger woman and keeps his marriage together. Unfortunately, Hurt brings such a self-centred, opaque personality to the role that he seems unworthy of such a kind fate.

There is nothing wrong with his acting; he delivers a finely nuanced performance. But Hurt seems so far inside himself that he might as well be on another planet. Then again, that is what Hollywood requires of the New Man: a bullet in the brain, a bent-up Porsche, a sudden cancer—and then a heroic round of self-redeeming therapy.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON