Picks and Pans Review: The Doctor

updated 08/12/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/12/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

William Hurt, Christine Lahti

Cleanly presented, with a minimum of ornamentation, this is a message drama that gets its message across. Of course, it helps that there's nearly a universal belief in that message: The American medical system is too mechanistic, too insensitive to the emotional needs of its patients.

Director Randa (Children of a Lesser God) Haines sets up the premise in an unobtrusive yet pointed opening sequence. While Hurt, a San Francisco heart surgeon, is performing a delicate operation, he and his surgical team are singing old Top 40 tunes and telling lawyer-trashing jokes. He might as well be replacing a broken-down transmission as repairing a human heart.

The possibility that doctors must remain distanced to face death doesn't escape Haines or writer Robert Caswell, adapting a memoir by Portland, Oreg., physician Edward Rosenbaum. If he were dying and needed a surgeon, Hurt tells a colleague, "I'd rather you cut straighter and care less."

But when Hurt learns he has a tumor on his larynx, he goes through a dehumanizing series of encounters with the health care system: hours in waiting rooms, repetitive forms, unnecessary delays in processing routine tests that have life or death importance to him, doctors who display the compassion of vending machines.

The resultant wholesale enlightenment he experiences smacks of Epiphanies-R-Us simplemindedness. There's also a lot of palming off of blame. "The system stinks," Hurt says in explaining one tragic mistake. "The insurance companies tell us what tests we can and can't give."

But Hurt is such a masterly subtle actor that he makes most of his transformation convincing, and he is aided by a difficult, quietly moving performance by Lahti as his alienated wife, whom Hurt has treated with little more emotion than he has his patients. Elizabeth Perkins is affecting too, even though it's not always easy to take her deus ex machina role as the brain tumor patient who converts Hurt from an automaton to a medical Care Bear.

For those of us who have ever had a grievance against the medical establishment—you other two can just go see Terminator 2 again—there's some revenge catharsis in this film's see-how-you-like-it attitude. But in another way the movie is about the less vindictive, more trying matter of confronting death, and it approaches that subject with unusual dignity and intelligence. (PG-13)

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