Kiefer Madness

As director of John Hughes productions such as Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, Howard Deutsch has heretofore only been paid to point his teenpic camera at Molly Ringwald's carrot crew cut, Andrew McCarthy's BMW, Mary Stuart Masterson's drumsticks, and Eric Stoltz's stupefied mope. Both these films had their echt-Eighties charms, but neither was especially memorable or good. In any case, a scathing denouncement of the national health-care system, which is what his new, Catch-22-inspired movie, Article 99, pretends to be, is beyond him still and may remain so indefinitely. Seeing as Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey has some spare time these days now that he's given up the White House race, he could give Howard a lesson - or three - on the state of medicine in America. (This is not a suggestion.)

The characters and plot are standard-issue formulaic: Blue-eyed, hyperintense Ray Liotta plays the surgical whiz-kid of a crumbling V.A. Hospital, predictably one who breaks all the rules, never gets caught, is worshipped by any and all who come within spitting distance of his scalpel, and who's looking for love in all the wrong places - in this instance, a twitchy ward psychiatrist (Kathy Baker). Kiefer Sutherland plays the habitual journeyman sidekick, the intern set on big-money medicine who has his eye on an idealistic, bespectacled - i.e. frigid -doctor on his ward (Lea Thompson), who cares about misery in the hospital not a whit but gets reformed just before audience members contemplate faxing letters to Donald Sutherland about his son. As you'd expect, there's a crisis at the hospital - bureaucratic forces of darkness commingle to ensure Ray doesn't complete a heart bypass operation on a terminally fat patient - but is well at the end. The final shot of Article 99 suggests Ray and Kiefer have shed their macho delusions and decided to tie the knot - I assure you that's not the case.

The others in the cast are enough to inspire a new wave of Roger Corman movies: There's John Mahoney, Jeffrey Tambor, and the late Julie Bovasso as the Larry, Curly, and Moe of hospital heavies; Forest Whitaker and John C. McGinley play bemused, resident doc-dudes; and finally, there's Eli Wallach, acting up a typhoon as an incontinent mummy with clumps of mold on his face. As it turns out, Eli warms the cockles of Kiefer's cold heart with a display of the Method that would raise Stanislavsky - his father, mother, and aunt, too - from their respective coffins. Still, the onion stains on Kiefer's white doctor's robe are proof that he's visibly moved by Eli.

Truth be told, I haven't seen a little-guy-versus-The-Establishment movie like this since Turk 182, and it's hard to speculate on how it might have been better - in the old days, people brought bagfuls of reefer to these features. Even Oingo Boingo's talented Danny Elfman, who's composed a couple of elegant film scores for Tim Burton's Beetlejuice and Batman as well as one for Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, is caught somewhere in Maurice Jarre-land - the music starts sugary, moves to syrupy, turns to caramel, and ends up as pecan pie. It's a musical diet that would make Paul Prudhomme barf up a lung.

Now trust me, I hate to sound like a big, old sourpuss when I take Kiefer to task. But let's face it - between him and Charlie Sheen, whom would you pick as the Big Kahuna of Cretinous Non-Acting Brat-Packers? After Wall Street ("Who am I?"), my nod would surely have gone to Charlie, but watching Kiefer in action near the operation table and whimpering beside Eli, I'm not so sure. Perhaps the two of them should make another movie together immediately and sort this question of great cultural and dramatic significance out.

(If you think this is a good suggestion, see this film immediately; don't wait until Article 99 comes out on video two weeks from now.)

Directed by Howard Deutsch; written by Ron Cutler; with Ray Liotta, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Lea Thompson, John C. McGinley, John Mahoney, Keith David, and Eli Wallach.

Rated R.
Opens Friday.


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