This slick, well-constructed film, a fine sophomore effort by director Randa Haines (CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD), was loosely adapted by screenwriter Robert Caswell (A CRY IN THE DARK) from a book based on Dr. Edward E. Rosenbaum's 50-year experience as a medical practitioner.
Jack McKee (William Hurt), an insufferably arrogant surgeon, gets a taste of his own medicine when he's suddenly diagnosed to have a malignant tumor and finds himself on the receiving end of a thermometer. In other words, he becomes a patient. Jack confronts his own mortality with an
understandable sense of angst and vulnerability. He also quickly falls prey to the same thoughtless medical attitudes he has always unwittingly subscribed to. As a patient, he encounters a dispassionate, bungling hospital bureaucracy obsessed with minutiae, spends hours of needless waiting and
incessant form-filling, and most disturbing, faces coldly patronizing colleagues whose general credo is cut straight, care less. Like the rest of us lesser mortals who have suffered all sorts of indignities dished out by Hippocratic oafs, Jack doesn't like it one bit.
During the tedious waiting-room process, Jack befriends June (Elizabeth Perkins), a terminal cancer outpatient whose life could have been saved by a thousand-dollar test she was never given. (Hospital insurance precluded it.) Although their purely platonic interludes together occasionally border
on the evangelical, she imparts to him an appreciation of life's fundamentals before she inevitably dies.
This shattering experience causes Jack to reappraise himself personally and professionally. He repairs his eroding relationship with wife Anne (Christine Lahti), long a victim of his marital neglect. He heeds his newly discovered conscience by refusing to perjure himself at an upcoming
malpractice trial for smarmy Murray (Mandy Patinkin), a member of his highly successful four-man surgical group practice, who is not above cheating--on his wife or in court. McKee also gains new-found respect for ear-nose-and-throat specialist Eli (Adam Arkin), nicknamed The Rabbi, who has been
consistently maligned by the Gang of Four because of his unique sensibilities: he really cares about his patients. Jack's own conversion from clinically detached healer and husband into humane individual proves complete when he orders his young surgical residents to spend three days as patients to
experience the same indignities they have cavalierly, thoughtlessly inflicted on others.
In content, THE DOCTOR is the flip side of Paddy Chayefsky's THE HOSPITAL, a spirited satire on the incompetence within a major medical center and a black comedy which showed, short of murder, how easy it is to "lose" patients in the daily course of slipshod care. THE DOCTOR doesn't quite have
that same hard edge or gallows humor because, in between the life and death surgical procedures, the film, after all, glorifies life. It's filled with a perverse but engaging humor--almost a stateside M*A*S*H--as it pokes fun at typical medical phenomena--from randy, raucous jokes in the operating
room as blood spurts in all directions, to unflattering hospital gowns that leave little to the imagination, to barium enemas meant for someone else. Unfortunately, many of those same lax procedures and attitudes depicted still persist, but the film's upbeat ending leaves some hope for better
"people handling" in the future from those in health care.
Though vaguely simplistic and unlayered, THE DOCTOR's linear plot teems with adult, often pungent dialogue delivered by real pros--particularly Hurt, a master of nuance, and Lahti (SWINGSHIFT, HOUSEKEEPING), a superb, underrated actress, who, though not given much to work with, manages to
delicately convey a strong sense of desolation. Though beautifully acted by Perkins, June's relationship with Jack is one of the film's only false notes. Arkin, as Eli, gives a short, sweet and absolutely convincing portrayal.
THE DOCTOR is a welcome change from the usual Hollywood pap, and considering its rational thesis, should well be made mandatory for all med students and surgical residents who might think their job begins and ends on a hospital's cutting room floor.
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: This slick, well-constructed film, a fine sophomore effort by director Randa Haines (CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD), was loosely adapted by screenwriter Robert Caswell (A CRY IN THE DARK) from a book based on Dr. Edward E. Rosenbaum's 50-year experience as a me… (more)