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Lumet has a reputation as an actor's director. Despite an ample array of bad performances in his oeuvre, he's elicited some of the most powerful pieces of acting in American movies, including Katharine Hepburn and the rest of the ensemble in Long Day's Journey Into Night, Rod Steiger and Juano Hernandez in The Pawnbroker, and Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. Actors want to work with Lumet for the same reason they want to work with Woody Allen -- unlike most directors, he gives them enough rehearsal time to create a character.
Also like Allen, Lumet gets major actors to work for a fraction of their usual fee and often in small roles. For performers who still believe that the stage, not the screen, is the ultimate crucible, Lumet's actor-centric approach to rehearsal and filming provides the illusion that one is working in the "higher" realm of the theater.
But all this freedom to explore pays off only if there's something worth exploring. As Lumet himself has discussed in interviews, a great actor isn't "great" in a vacuum; first there must be a great role. And the roles in Critical Care, as adapted by TV-producer-turned-screenwriter Steven Schwartz from a novel by Richard Dooling, are dim. Lumet and Schwartz are trying for a black comedy about the health care system, and God knows there's enough material out there for the blackest of jests. Why didn't more of it get into this movie?
Critical Care wants to do to medicine what Lumet's Network (1976) did to TV -- which no doubt is why Lumet was attracted to Schwartz's material. Paddy Chayefsky's Network script was a yowly sermon that often utilized the underhanded TV tactics it ostensibly condemned. But the film had a schlocky, knockabout force; it was one of those show-biz love/hate valentines that "exposed" what already was very much in plain view.
With Network -- and probably Chayefsky's script for Arthur Hiller's The Hospital (1971), too -- clearly in mind, Schwartz has chosen to mimic the screenwriter's soggy, sermonizing side and leave out the giddy bluster. A sickly self-righteousness comes through, and no more so than in the character of Dr. Werner Ernst (Spader), the big-city hospital resident who agonizingly climbs to glory. Tending to a "vegetative" patient, Werner finds himself caught between the warring claims of the patient's two daughters: Connie (Margo Martindale), a Holy Roller who wants to keep the expensive life-support systems on, and Felicia (Sedgwick), who wants them switched off.
When it turns out that the dispute hinges not on quality of life but rather on quantity of inheritance, Werner must choose between being a "good" doctor or the kind who cares about his patients only if they come equipped with hefty insurance policies. Care to guess what happens? Worse than the film's predictability is the glib and self-serving way in which the predictions are fulfilled.
Spader, along with the other actors, must have thought this pap is what Oscars are made of. And sometimes it is. But to be truly Oscar-worthy this stuff needs a phony-baloney grandiloquence -- the sort of thing Chayefsky supplied in his Oscar-copping screenplay for Network. Schwartz's grandstanding is so tepid he wouldn't rate a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, let alone an Oscar.
Lumet and his production team have designed the intensive care unit to resemble the interiors in Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and George Lucas' THX 1138. The ICU's state-of-the-art look is meant to reinforce the idea that modern medicine is very good at keeping you alive -- as long as your insurance holds out.
But there's something else going on here: The filmmakers seem antagonistic to the methods of science itself. The character played by Philip Bosco is a cutting-edge critical-care researcher, but he's portrayed as a martinet. His space-age work is presented as soulless mumbo jumbo -- a way of distancing the doctor from the patient. With so many good examples of bad medicine at the filmmakers' disposal, why stoop to this airheaded Luddism? It makes about as much sense to attack the "soulless" technology of modern medicine as it does to attack the advanced techno-gizmos of modern moviemaking. It's not the technology that's the problem, it's the technocrats. Even Paddy Chayefsky could have told you that.
As an indication of how back-ass-wards this movie is, the only character who comes across with any heft is Albert Brooks' Dr. Butz, a boozy geezer who once pioneered critical-care management but now cares only about racking up numbers. He's a new-style villain: the managed care ogre. And yet Brooks has so much fun with the character that Butz ends up being the film's hero. His venality shines brighter than Werner's righteousness. You can't take seriously anything Brooks does here -- never was an actor less suited to playing an old fart. But Brooks in other movies is so good at playing a middle-aged fart that this role seems prescient. It's a peek into Brooks' crusty, cigar-chomping comic future.
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