Lumet Lambastes the Docs: Check Your Policy First

Sidney Lumet’s Critical Care , from a screenplay by Steven S. Schwarz, based on the book by Richard Dooling, stands out among contemporary American mainstream movies by being about something real and important and increasingly ghoulish in the lives of most Americans without great fortunes or trust funds: the rising costs and plummeting quality of health care. Most recent movies about doctors and hospitals leap headlong into the horror genre as if all the true stories about the rationing of “managed health care” were not obscenely terrifying enough. Up to now, television hospital series such as Chicago Hope and ER have been far more venturesome than movies in tackling the fearsome ethics-versus-economics dilemmas in the health care system.

Critical Care is set in a fictional four-star intensive-care unit for terminal patients with big pockets where technological advances have freed the doctors, who are all in it for the big payday, from having any extended personal contact with their patients. Many of the most pungent lines about the new cynicism in medicine are delivered by a completely comical figure (Albert Brooks, portraying the drunken head of the hospital) who exists in the film only to show how bad the bottom-line mentality of medical practitioners has become.

Although Critical Care does indulge to a certain extent in fantasy and caricature in its treatment of life and death in an exclusive state-of-the-art intensive care unit in an unnamed large city, it emerges as a magically entertaining blend of heart, soul, mind, wit, farce and, finally, an idyllic idealism. What holds it together is a marvelously resourceful performance by James Spader as Dr. Werner Ernst, an overworked, ambitious surgical intern whose awakening sex drive nearly proves his undoing in the heartlessly corrupt medical establishment with the most advanced technology and the most regressive morality. Mr. Spader takes us through Dr. Ernst’s moral awakening without becoming preachy or treacly about it, to the point that I hate to think what the movie would have been without him.

Most of the action takes place amid the antiseptic whiteness and modish turquoise of a literally deathly quiet in a circular temple of life-support systems attached to various stages of human vegetation. As the mobile camera roams around the ghastly neatness of its surroundings, the entire spectacle is bathed with a satirically mordant elegance that is pleasing to the eye even as it chills the heart.

In this gruesome context, even the mildest turn of phrase seems funnier than it would normally. When Dr. Ernst suggests that there is a cabbage in his refrigerator at home with a better chance of gaining consciousness than a certain comatose millionaire with a fabulous insurance policy for catastrophic illness, one chuckles in spite of oneself. Of course, it helps if one is agitated by our national medical crisis, as one should be. Otherwise, one may question some of the plot contrivances involving a pair of selfishly motivated sisters-played by Kyra Sedgwick and Margo Martindale-trying desperately to gain control of their comatose father’s estate, which is worth millions. As James Spader’s character finds himself taking control over the old man’s fate, Ms. Sedgwick’s Felicia Potter, the shameless sexpot of the two, is not above seducing the susceptible doctor for her purposes. Meanwhile, Ms. Martindale’s Connie practices a brand of hypocritical, Bible-thumping, right-to-life rhetoric in a facade which promotes her own selfish ends. The wildly shifting moods of the film from pure cynicism to pure idealism may disturb viewers who prefer a consistent tone in their entertainment.

Here again, Mr. Spader is indispensable in bridging the wide gaps between such extreme characterizations as Helen Mirren’s Stella, a nurse with an intense compassion for the desperately death-seeking patient in Bed 2, played by Jeffrey Wright; the drunken Dr. Butz, burlesqued with cartoonish brio by Mr. Brooks; the ruthlessly pragmatic Dr. Hofstader, played by Philip Bosco with a seeming delight in how remote from his patients modern technology has enabled him to become; and, in two problematic representations of good and evil, each with a perplexingly vague mandate for end-of-life issues, Anne Bancroft as a ghostly nun, and Wallace Shawn as a puckish Satan’s helper who is, as is to be expected, considerably more fun than the nun.

Amid all these positive and negative allegorical figures, Mr. Spader’s Dr. Ernst alone supplies the audience with a protagonist, a raisonneur and a sufficiently flawed character at the outset who gradually becomes redeemable by the final fadeout. Ever since Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, Mr. Spader has played a wide range of both sympathetic and unsympathetic characters with a strange blend of passivity and unobtrusive attentiveness. He will probably never be a bankable star, and thank God-at least for us, if not for him. Instead, he has evolved into one of the best listeners and reactors in the business, one whose face can so eloquently express the processes of thinking. The emotions he projects are thus eminently earned, and when he confirms for an uninsured accident patient that he is indeed a doctor, Mr. Spader’s slow smile becomes a hymn to the medical profession.

As for Mr. Lumet, he has long endured the slings and arrows of romance- and fantasy-seekers who are impatient with his persistent devotion to gritty realism. As one of his perhaps unjust detractors, it gives me special pleasure to rank Critical Care among his most felicitous and graceful achievements.

In Beaumarchais, Another Cast of Scoundrels

Édouard Molinaro’s Beaumarchais the Scoundrel, from a screenplay by Mr. Molinaro and Jean-Claude Brisville, inspired by an unpublished work by Sacha Guitry, is held together in all its pomp and pageantry by the remarkably gifted Fabrice Luchini in the title role, much as Critical Care is held together by the remarkably gifted James Spader. Am I, reputedly the archfiend of directorial auteurism, suggesting that actors are the true auteurs of the cinema? Well, sometimes. Not that Mr. Molinaro’s contributions to the project should be slighted or minimized. Even the casting of Mr. Luchini was regarded by the director as essential to the conception and execution of the role of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799), the author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, titles more familiar in America through the operas of Rossini and Mozart, respectively.

Beaumarchais was a fascinating figure in both the literary and political turmoil of his time. Voltaire, no less, is quoted in the film as declaring that Beaumarchais would never achieve the greatness of Molière because he (Beaumarchais) squandered his talents on the life at the expense of the art. But then Molière would never have provided such mesmerizing movie material as a character, and his century, the 17th, was, of course, less tumultuous than the 18th, during which Beaumarchais was often beleaguered and imprisoned. Guitry, a filmmaker himself, and one of the most prolific French playwrights of the 20th century, obviously found a kindred spirit in Beaumarchais.

What Mr. Luchini has captured so admirably in the character is a personality awash in ambiguities and contradictions: bent on mischief, yet often beset by spasms of idealism; a champion of the people against the corrupt aristocracy, and yet also a shameless social climber, eager for the beribboned privileges of the nobility for himself. Mr. Luchini has often played such complex parts for such ironically inclined directors as Eric Rohmer and Christian Vincent.

Mr. Luchini is coupled with one of France’s most exciting young actresses, Sandrine Kiberlain, and a large part of France’s acting nobility-Michel Serrault, Michel Piccoli, Jean Yanne, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jacques Weber, Alain Chabat, among many others who summon up ghosts of the Nouvelle Vague and the Truffaut-hated “tradition of quality” that preceded it. Mr. Molinaro is closer to the “tradition of quality” than to the Nouvelle Vague more in spirit than in age. La Cage aux Folles (1978) is his signature film for American art-house audiences, but that is more in the mold of commercial entertainment than is usual in his mostly noirish career. The problem with Beaumarchais the Scoundrel is that it sprawls more than it surges. Mr. Molinaro and his collaborators have simply taken up more themes than they can explore in depth. Beaumarchais in London trying to help the cause of the American Revolution is even more at sea than Thomas Jefferson was in the desiccated Paris of Merchant-Ivory in Jefferson in Paris (1995). Still and all, Mr. Luchini and Ms. Kiberlain are well worth the price of admission all by themselves.

Correction

Before the mail starts pouring in, I must confess that I committed a strange and perhaps unconsciously sexist gaffe in last week’s column when I reminisced, “That reminded me of the ‘problem’ raised by a nervous talk-show host about blond May Britt’s interracial marriage to Sammy Davis Jr. Wasn’t she too short for him?” What I knew and meant to convey, and the only way the “question” makes ironical common sense, was “Wasn’t he too short for her ? Somewhere along the way, my male chauvinist fingers reversed the comparative heights of the towering Britt and the diminutive Davis on my typewriter. I suppose it all goes back to the genes I inherited from the cavemen.