Jack MacKee is a heart surgeon who cuts his patients' chests open to the sound of the Four Seasons' "Big Girls Don't Cry" and sews them up to Jimmy Buffet's "Why Don't We Get Drunk (and Screw).
He's a doctor who tells one such patient, worried about her husband's reaction to her scars: "Tell him he's married to a real Playboy Playmate of the Month and that you've got the staple marks to prove it!"
In Randa Haines' new movie "The Doctor," Jack becomes a patient himself -- he undergoes surgery for laryngeal cancer -- develops a warmer heart and becomes a better healer of hearts. If this sounds superficially similar to Mike Nichols' "Regarding Henry," the operative word is superficial. The Nichols film asks us to believe that all one needs to be transformed from a louse to a mensch is a bullet in the head; a coma follows and you wake up nice. Haines' new film shows a process of suffering -- of learning to feel what others feel. It's the difference between melodrama and something more ambitious.
The film has a clever screenplay (by Robert Caswell from Dr. Ed Rosenbaum's "A Taste of My Own Medicine") that makes clear that Jack is not a bad man, just someone who has learned to protect himself from feeling. He's illuminatingly contrasted to his partner, the unfeeling and selfish Murray, and to the warm, caring Eli, the ear, nose and throat man whom Jack and Murray scorn as "the Rabbi" and to whom Jack finally entrusts himself as a patient.
Haines brings the screenplay to closely observed life. She is a master of detail, whether of the bureaucratic hell in hospitals caused by the duplication of forms, of the dehumanizing robes that leave patients as emotionally exposed as their rear ends, or of diagnostic tests that could have been invented by the Inquisition.
She's just as good with people -- whether it's patients terrorized by procedures they don't understand or macho surgeons with their cock-of-the-corridor walks and their locker-room talk.
Hurt's performance is subtle and affecting. "Turn off the music," he growls when he begins to lose a patient who has jumped from a five-story building. After several desperate minutes in which he saves the young man's life, the music comes back on and the cocksure quips return: "When he wakes up, tell him to try 10 floors next time." The strain on Jack of simultaneously trying to protect himself and trying to save his patients could not be more vivid.
That Jack finally allows himself to feel is partly a consequence of his unconsummated love affair with June (Elizabeth Perkins), another cancer patient. Perkins plays the part Julia Roberts did in "Steel Magnolias": the doomed, beautiful young victim who teaches others the value of life. Perkins does it better. Her goodness and patience do not eschew a sense of rage about losing what is precious.
Christine Lahti, as Jack's wife Anne, has perhaps the most demanding role of all because, unlike the other lead characters, her part was written without bravura. Lahti makes us understand that Anne has been held at arm's length by Jack for so long that she no longer can feel the compassion she would like to feel. Her performance is the kind in which it is impossible to tell acting from living.
There are some wrong turns in this movie -- among them Jack's trip to the desert, where open spaces are meant to suggest cinematic significance that fails to register, and Jack's unconvincingly didactic gesture near the end of the film when he makes his interns undergo 72 hours as patients in order to experience the humiliation of illness.
But most of "The Doctor" is compelling because we are watching people we have come to care about. At the end of the movie, high up on the hospital's roof, Jack reads a posthumous letter from June in which she tells him things she was unable to say when alive. Tears run down Jack's face, but he laughs too. That will be how many viewers respond to this film, so filled is it with sadness and sweetness.
Starring William Hurt, Christine Lahti, Mandy Patinkin and Elizabeth Perkins.
Directed by Randa Haines.
Released by Touchstone Pictures.