Medicine Men

The age-old question "Is there a doctor in the house?" is answered in duplicate this week with The Doctor and Doc Hollywood. In the wake of a bombs-away July in which Hollywood hardly showed a pulse, these early-August offerings, both about physicians, both based on books written by physicians, have got a sure-fire cure for the summertime blues. Radically different prescriptions, though - one's heavily dramatic and eloquent, the other weightless and guilt-free.

The doctor of The Doctor is Jack McKee (William Hurt), a big-shot San Francisco physician who must reappraise his manner (bedside and otherwise) when he contracts cancer. A respected, successful cardio-thoracic surgeon, Jack keeps himself well above his work, and he likes it that way. In the operating room, he plays Frankie Valli's "Big Girls Don't Cry" and Jimmy Buffett's "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw." When patients ask him questions, he answers with aloof wisecracks; to one woman who places a frantic nighttime call asking if her husband can mow the lawn, he responds, "Well, it's kind of dark now." Jack's not a bad surgeon, merely one without any emotional commitment to his patients. "I'd rather you cut straight and cared less," he brusquely advises a group of interns.

But the chronic sore throat that's been dogging Jack doesn't go away, and when he finally drags himself to the doctor, he's in for a rude surprise. A tumor in his throat. Malignant.

The difficulty of patients, and especially cancer patients, in squaring themselves with the medical establishment has been detailed before; Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor is a good primer. Since The Doctor's protagonist rides the doctor-patient fence, the film can investigate the same sort of alienation more concretely, replacing Sontag's sociohistorical analysis with a subtle, but still scathing, indictment of the politics of American health care. Recast in the role of the indignant patient, McKee bristles at filling out forms in triplicate, screams at nurses when doctors don't keep appointments, refuses to ride through the hospital halls in a wheelchair even when an orderly explains that the practice is necessary for insurance liability.

With solid direction by Randa Haines, who also helmed Hurt in the 1987 adaption of Mark Medoff's Children of a Lesser God, The Doctor is sparse and institutional without insisting on its visual anesthesia. In the name of dramatic compression and fair representation, the script indulges a Noah's Ark theory of ensemble drama, with representatives from every species - the nervous partner being sued for malpractice (Mandy Patinkin), the beautiful female surgeon (Wendy Crewson), the staff's unassuming humanitarian (Adam Arkin). It's a thoughtful mix, more satisfying than the average motley crew, but calculating enough to ossify the story at times.

Good thing, then, that the movie is so centrally dependent upon its star. A difficult actor to cast because of his slightly blank look and his tetchy haughtiness, Hurt gives a huge performance here. Male-illness movies have been all the rage lately, with films such as Awakenings and Regarding Henry vouching for the theory that only the sick man can know himself entirely. But those films were miraculous in the treacly, pandering, quasi-religious sense. Here, there's none of that. Jack is logical to a fault, smart, and inimically inarticulate -it's not that he can't express himself, it's just that you're not worth his time. In this new, slightly off-putting genre, the cerebral tear-jerker, when the hero decides to open his heart, you'll notice the change.

That's why it's entirely believable when Jack comes to respect, and then to love, a young woman named June (Elizabeth Perkins), a fellow cancer patient suffering from an advanced brain tumor. In the kind of doomed-angel role that has become as stereotypical as the hooker with a heart of gold, Perkins gives a performance as insular as Hurt's, marvelously precise work free of both rage-against-the-dying-night fireworks and underwritten-by-Kleenex waterworks. Christine Lahti is equally superb in an even more difficult role, that of Jack's wife Anne, who grows to resent his coldness and denial. ("We'll beat it," Anne says after she learns of her husband's tumor. "We?" Jack sneers in return. "This isn't about we. We don't have it.")

As Jack passes through a series of small revelations, as he comes to reconsider his role as a surgeon, as he wonders if he, as a patient, would want to place himself in the care of a surgeon who cuts straight and cares less, Haines earns points for her restraint. The Doctor holds back from hammering on the big keys, from giving Jack a swirling, nonlinear monologue about seizing the day (and how to do it), from falsifying a love scene between Jack and June just to satisfy the audience's prurience. Clipped and severe despite its occasional sentiment, this is a film that understands how people really deal with trauma, or at least how they deal with it when there's no Hollywood around to manufacture naked honesty. They erect defenses, they maintain distances; the forthrightness of the movie lies in its willingness to admit forms of self-deception. Jack's gains are hard-earned, genuine, and not entirely accessible, more potent for their opacity than a hospital full of overemotive epiphanies.

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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