Medicine Men

While Hurt reaps the spiritual profits of his role-reversal, Michael J. Fox gets treated to a different sort of humbling in Doc Hollywood, a slight but amiable update of the time-tried fish-out-of-water story. Benjamin Stone, the latest in a long line of Fox characters who are only slightly distinguishable from one another, is a snotty young Washington, D.C., surgeon, kind of the plush-toy version of Hurt's Jack McKee.

As he leaves D.C. one fine morning, Stone is perched on the brink of his dream come true - a cushy appointment to a Los Angeles plastic-surgery firm, where he can nip and tuck the beautiful people and augment starlets to his heart's content. But Clotho has spun a different thread for the young scalpelman. As a result of a car accident and an autocratic local magistrate, he's forced to serve 32 hours of community service in Grady, South Carolina, a town in desperate need of a doctor. The last time a provincial judge waylaid city slickers, it was in Nothing But Trouble, the intolerably misguided Dan Aykroyd/Chevy Chase fiasco, and the faint echo of that film sours the early going. But soon the good doctor is installed in Grady, getting to know the town's vaguely stereotypical down-home types - the chummy mayor (David Ogden Stiers), the workaholic insurance salesman (Woody Harrelson), the crusty old practitioner (Barnard Hughes). And, of course, the requisite love interest, Lou (Julie Warner), a single mother and law-student-to-be who bewitches Stone.

For this sort of movie, which should be approached with minimal expectations, the yield's not bad. Still unable to shake the effects of chronic lightweight syndrome, Fox maintains his dependable small-dog appeal, and Doc Hollywood is directed with adroit comic timing by Michael Caton-Jones (Scandal, Memphis Belle). The script, penned by the threesome of Jeffrey Price, Peter Seaman, and Daniel Pyne, tries hard to give Grady an individual flavor, even going so far as to manufacture a detailed town history and dub the fictional burg "Squash Capital of America." While other small town satires hint at lurking malignancies (Arachnophobia and Bill D'Elia's The Feud, a little-seen 1990 adaption of a Thomas Berger novel), Doc Hollywood depicts Grady (actually filmed in the North Florida hamlet of Micanopy) with the utmost gentleness, a pastoral paradise populated by kind, if occasionally eccentric, folk. There's no racism, no wanton cruelty, no alcoholism, no ugliness. If you don't like Grady, it seems, the problem lies not in the size of the town, but in the size of your heart.

The players entrusted to accomplish this endearing whitewash of rural America read like the invitation list for a big, happy sitcom reunion. Fox, of course, was Alex Keaton on Family Ties, Stiers played the supercilious Charles Emerson Winchester in M*A*S*H, and Harrelson's still setting up steins as the befuddled, provincial Woody Boyd on Cheers. Even Warner, the newcomer, has tube roots, having previously appeared in Star Trek - The Next Generation and the HBO special The Diceman Cometh (in which she played Andrew Dice Clay's girlfriend, a role that's the rough equivalent of playing a house guest in The Jeffrey Dahmer Story). Surrounded by a trio of low-risk comedy experts, Warner could easily have been the weak link, but she's convincing and casually sensual. And Bridget Fonda, a favorite of director Caton-Jones's since Scandal, is gawky, storky, and hilarious as the mayor's hot-pants daughter, itching to bust out of Grady.

As it moves toward its unsurprising climax, Doc Hollywood stays well above water, developing into both a passable investigation of small-town ways and an honest love story. Even when Lou wistfully quotes John Muir - "Most people are on the world, not in it" - there's not a shred of bombast. Minor to the end, Doc Hollywood works best as a testament to its own dinky-town theme, that good things often come in small packages.

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