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CRITICAL CARE (director: Sidney Lumet; screenwriters: from the novel by Richard Dooling/Steven Schwartz; cinematographer: David Watkin; editor: Tom Swartwout; cast: James Spader (Werner Ernst), Kyra Sedgwick (Felicia Potter), Helen Mirren (Stella, nurse), Margo Martindale (Connie), Philip Bosco (Dr. Hofstader), Jeffrey Wright (Rafael, Bed Two), Wallace Shawn (Satan’s helper), Anne Bancroft (Nun), Edward Herrmann (Robert Payne,Lawyer), Albert Brooks (Dr. Butz), Al Waxman (Lawyer Hatchet), Harvey Atkin (Judge Fatale), Colm Feore (Wilson, hospital legal head), Hamish McEwan(Dr. Hansen), James Lally (Poindexter); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Sidney Lumet/Steven Schwartz; Live Entertainment; 1997)
“There’s not much that’s subtle in Lumet’s tirade against the greed of the medical profession and health-care system and patients who sue.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Sidney Lumet (“The Hill”/”The Verdict”/”The Deadly Affair”)directs this moral dilemma hospital melodrama as a satire on the failing health-care system. It’s based on the novel by Richard Dooling and is written by Steven Schwartz. As is the director’s want, there’s not much that’s subtle in Lumet’s tirade against the greed of the medical profession and health-care system and patients who sue. The scenario is heavy-handed and its spiritual message, ‘Love is what is important,’ is awkwardly delivered. Nevertheless there are many scathing funny moments (ala Network) in this romp through the critical-care unit of alarge metropolitan hospital, where common-sense and the absurd have a way of intertwining in a surreal reality.

Dr. Werner Ernst (James Spader) is a talented second-year resident at Memorial Hospital, who is under the supervision of the vile chief resident Dr. Butz (Albert Brooks). The creepy, alcoholic, incompetent doctor has been kicked upstairs after a number of law suits against him and in a gruff avuncular and off-putting smug way, advocates that the only patients who get treated under him are the ones who are fully insured. If one is insured in the critical care unit, Dr. Butz recommends keeping them alive until their insurance runs out.

One of Werner’s comatose patients is the elderly former sailor Potter, who is kept on life-support because he has long-term catastrophe insurance that pays the enormous bills on time.Werner has a Bible-thumping obese daughter from his first wife, Connie (Margo Martindale), who insists dad be given a feeding tube while on the ventilator and kept alive even if a veggie; while his other attractive fashion model daughter from his second wife, Felicia (Kyra Sedgwick), has her lawyer take out an injunction against the feeding tube and out of mercy wants the patient taken off life support. It turns out this is a fight over money and has nothing to do with euthanasia, as Felicia’s deceased wealthy mom left $10 million in her will to her ailing hubby if he lives for five years after her death but if he dies before that time Felicia gets all the money. In three weeks, their dad will be alive for the full five years. Connie figures to get the dough if dad lives, since his will has all his assets going to her. Werner gets entangled in this mess by being seduced by Felicia, who videotapes him atop her and to make sure he bangs her he repeats what she wants to hear–that her dad should be taken off life support. This goes against the ethics of the profession, according to the pic, as a doctor is not allowed to freely express himself in a such a manner without opening himself up to a lawsuit.

The intern, caught in the middle of the law suits and in danger of losing his residency, cunningly maneuvers to get out of the jam and end up playing god to the patient–as he’s granted life and death powers over the patient at a hearing in Judge Fatale’s chambers with the lawyers of the daughters and the hospital lawyers.

Helen Mirren plays a dedicated nurse, who is sympathetic to her terminally-ill patients; Anne Bancroft is the nun appearing from heaven with heavenly advice; while Wallace Shawn is Satan’s helper from the other world. But acting honors go to Edward Herrmann, the pompous, cunning, assured, and cynical hospital lawyer, who represents all the ills of the current health-care system.

The uneven film never probes into anything but the obvious, as it has nothing vital to say about mercy killings. It only tells us there’s something wrong with the American health-care system, which is hardly breaking news.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”