[Screen It]


(1997) (James Spader, Kyra Sedgewick) (R)

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Drama/Black Comedy: A doctor finds himself caught in the middle of a sisterly fight concerning the life or death of their terminally ill father and his sizable estate.
Dr. Werner Ernst (JAMES SPADER) is a second year med student who works with Stella (HELEN MIRREN), the head nurse in a critical care unit of a large metropolitan hospital. Suffering from a lack of sleep and the state of the many terminally ill patients around him, Werner burns off his frustrations by chasing after the ladies. One of them, Felicia Potter (KYRA SEDGWICK), happens to be a patient's daughter and she puts on the damsel in distress act that lures Werner into her web.

It seems she wants her father's pain and suffering to end, but her ultra-religious half-sister, Connie (MARGO MARTINDALE), wants the doctors to do whatever they can to keep him alive. Felicia lures Werner into bed, but only after he admits -- in the heat of passion -- that yes, they should pull the father off life support. Little does Werner know that she recorded his statement on video, and he finds himself in the middle of a legal battle between the two sisters. That's not good for him as it might just jeopardize his plans to join Dr. Hofstader (PHILIP BOSCO) and his state of the art medical facility.

Werner tries to get advice from Dr. Butz (ALBERT BROOKS), an older doctor who's been cornered away into administrative duties due to his alcoholism and mental lapses. Butz isn't much help, nor is Stella who grapples with how to help a twenty-three-year-old terminally ill patient known only as Bed Two (JEFFREY WRIGHT). As Werner discovers that there's more at stake for the sisters than just their father's health, he must come up with a solution to save his status as a doctor as well as his own conscience.

Unless they're fans of someone in the cast, it's not very likely.
For language and a scene of sexuality.
  • JAMES SPADER plays a medical resident who's devoted to his work and must come to terms with his beliefs about his terminally ill patients. He does sleep with Felicia just after meeting her.
  • KYRA SEDGWICK plays a model whose motives about her father's life are fueled by greed, and she sleeps with Werner only to further her own greed.
  • MARGO MARTINDALE plays a woman who feigns to be ultra-religious when in reality it's all an act to cover up her own greedy aspirations.
  • HELEN MIRREN plays a nurse who must work out her beliefs about the terminally ill patients and how best to help them.
  • ALBERT BROOKS plays an older doctor whose age and reported alcoholism have made him absentminded. He can still remember, however, that medicine to him is about money and he refuses to allow anyone to be treated if they don't have insurance.


    OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
    Have you ever seen a film that you weren't sure how you felt about it after leaving the theater? A film that oddly mixed genres, but like oil and water never quite jelled? Well, "Critical Care" is one of those films. Trying to mix drama, biting satire, and black comedy, its elements occasionally work on their own, but when combined they don't create a cohesive feature. All of this is somewhat surprising and disappointing considering the film maker's pedigree.

    Director Sidney Lumet has directed some of the great films in the second half of this century ("Fail-Safe," "Serpico") and is also known for his films that examine and often skewer big, important subjects. In "Network" he tackled the inner workings of the news industry, while "Dog Day Afternoon" focused on the media circus that builds around unfolding events. With "Critical Care" he hopes to do the same with the health care industry. Certainly a topic ripe for the picking, Lumet offers his views on physicians struggling to be doctors and businesspeople; health insurance; and the weighty and controversial issue of artificially prolonging life. By placing his main character smack dab in the middle of a lawsuit that exposes those many topics, Lumet takes pot shots at all of them, but rarely hits one dead on.

    Perhaps it's the fact that he's trying to tackle so many issues in just one movie, but none of it ever feels tightly focused and the result is a film that often comes off feeling more like bit and pieces of made for TV movies. In fact most of the material has been done in such movies many times before and thus the film also suffers from a lack of freshness. Part of the problem is the subject material itself. Care of the terminally ill seems like ill-suited material for a satirical movie, and no matter how it's done, it will often leave a bad aftertaste in a viewer's mouth.

    It doesn't help that the film starts off rather flat and excruciatingly slow as we're introduced to the critical care facility and its odd-looking set. Nearing the look of a brightly lit, sterile space station, the setting is as cold and impersonal as the care most of the patients receive. Of course we understand that's supposed to be symbolic of the current state of such care, and the film does initially appear to be a probing expose -- or at least examination -- of that part of health care. Soon, however, Lumet introduces multiple plot elements that diffuse the film's initial thrust. And when certain odd scenes show up, they really knock this train off its tracks.

    We're subjected to several instances where a terminally ill patient is visited by the Devil's henchman (played without any zeal by Wallace Shawn) who tries to convince this patient to come over to "their side." Bathed in a hellish red hue, the scenes are strange, but then so is a later one where Werner sees an angelic nun who helps him set his priorities and beliefs straight. I guess this is supposed to play off the motif of the devil sitting on one shoulder and an angel on the other, but it's all rather strangely done. Of course the angel part motivates Werner's final actions, but the Devil part is just plain odd. Such scenes, while weakly symbolic, undermine the film's efforts at skewering its subjects. Additionally, the film has a hard time trying to find a perfect balance between the drama and black comedy, all of which also weakens its momentum.

    The performances are okay, but not outstanding. Mirren does the best as the compassionate nurse, but isn't given enough material with which to work, and suffers from us not knowing much else about her. Spader's take on the confused doctor is okay, but this actor rarely plays characters whom the audience roots for, and this one is no different. Here he portrays a rather cold aloofness that's obviously part of his character, but that also undermines our ability to care for his plight. Sedgwick is occasionally funny but more often annoying as she hams it up as the greedy sister who traps Spader in her plan.

    The always delightful Albert Brooks is very funny in his supporting role, but all of the makeup in the world (that makes him look like an old, disheveled Mark Twain) can't hide his mannerisms and speech patterns. Fortunately he doesn't do his usual neurotic performance, and instead is mainly an absentminded thorn in Werner's side. Nonetheless, his character seems out of place in this film, as if he's there just to stand on the soapbox for the discussion on health insurance ("And now to speak about people who don't have health insurance and the administration that consequently doesn't want to treat them, let's give a big hand to Mr. Albert Brooks as the old codger doctor.").

    Fortunately, the dueling sister plot keeps things moving forward, and the film does seem to get better after that cold and very slow start. Yet it doesn't survive its identity crisis as Lumet unsuccessfully tries to tackle too many issues. Had he stuck with just a few and focused more on the main plot element regarding the sisters, the film would have been more enjoyable. As it stands, it stretches out in too many directions for its own good and never feels like one unified story. Thus, we give "Critical Care" a 4 out of 10.

    Profanity and one sexual encounter are the worst of the blatant material in this film, with the rest falling into the theme category. Nearly 10 "f" words are uttered along with several others, while two characters fool around with each other (and apparently have sex) but we don't see much nudity or explicit activity. The film also deals with the terminally ill and how (or if) they should be treated, and two sisters fight over their father's care. However, it turns out they're really fighting over his money. It's highly unlikely that many kids will want to see this film, but you should read through the material to make sure it's appropriate should someone in your family wish to see it.

  • Dr. Butz is reportedly an alcoholic, but we only see him drink in one scene where he pours himself a good amount of Scotch.
  • Werner and Felicia have wine with dinner as do others in a restaurant. Later, she pours them after dinner drinks.
  • The Devil's henchman drinks a beer.
  • We see a holographic heart on a table and it initially looks somewhat realistic.
  • A terminally ill patient says that he doesn't believe in God anymore and that he desperately wants to die. Later, however, he states that he wishes to be with God.
  • Some viewers may not like the "fantasy" sequences where the Devil's henchman tries to persuade the above man to come over to "their" side.
  • Some viewers may not like the portrayal of the religious sister as "the bad guy," and in the end it turns out her religious stance was purely an act in her effort to win the law suit.
  • Felicia sleeps with Werner just so that she can videotape his passion-induced statement about the care of her father, and then later blackmail him with that tape.
  • Many of the doctors and staff look at the terminally ill patients as less than human and don't care if they can hear their often callous comments about the patients' odds of living.
  • Werner lies to the hospital's lawyer about the sex videotape.
  • Dr. Butz is only concerned with making money and won't allow Werner to work on a man who doesn't have health insurance.
  • Some may see Stella's actions of removing a man from life support (who asked her to do that) and allowing him to die as having both. This also happens again later in the film with Werner.
  • None.
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Dork," "Duffus," "D*ckhead," "Geez," "Schmuck," and "Nuts" and "Looney Tunes" (for crazy).
  • Felicia videotapes herself and Warner having sex.
  • Felicia gives Warner "the finger."
  • None.
  • None.
  • None.
  • At least 9 "f" words, 6 "s" words, 1 slang term using male genitals (the "d" word), 6 hells, 3 damns, 2 asses, and 4 uses of "G-damn," 3 uses of "My God," 2 uses of "Oh God" and 1 use of "God" as exclamations.
  • Stella comments on Werner's womanizing ways and quotes Hippocrates saying, "When the dingus gets hard, the brain gets soft." She also mentions that lack of sleep and prodigious sex isn't a good combination.
  • Stella removes her shirt and bra to show her mastectomy scar to an ill patient, but we don't see anything.
  • Felicia and Werner passionately kiss, he grabs her butt, and we see just a tiny bit of her butt as her skirt rides up. She then strips for him (down to a teddy, garters and we see some cleavage) and they kiss and roll around on the bed. We hear some heavy breathing and finally some sexual sounds, but the camera pans away before we see anything else.
  • We later see Felicia in a small bikini.
  • We occasionally see Dr. Butz with a cigar.
  • Felicia and Connie fight over their father's care, with both acting emotionally upset, but we later learn that's all they were doing -- just acting.
  • The care of terminally ill patients and whether they should be kept on life support (without or even against their permission).
  • Health care in general and how if often seems -- as portrayed in this movie -- as a business and not a medical service.
  • None.

  • Reviewed October 31, 1997

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