'Critical Care' laughs to keep from crying Review: Dark comedy about the health-care industry is off the charts as smart sendup with a soul.

November 14, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Sending up today's insurance-driven medicine racket is tantamount to shooting fish in a barrel. As the nexus of so many charged themes -- life, death, greed, vanity and a surfeit of litigation -- the hospital seems sent straight from central casting as the ideal institutional symbol for most of our societal ills.

"Critical Care," a dark satire directed with seasoned virtuosity by Sidney Lumet ("12 Angry Men," "The Verdict," the overlooked "Night Falls on Manhattan"), easily juggles its multi-layered agenda (first we kill the lawyers, then we kill the doctors, then we kill the religious hypocrites, then we kill everyone else), and even when it slips, it slides into interesting places.

Well-acted by a bright cast and featuring a scene-stealing Albert Brooks as crotchety, alcoholic Dr. Butz, "Critical Care" admittedly makes some not-so-new points, but it does so with a rare degree of smarts, style and, of all things, spiritual meaning.

James Spader (he of the 365 good hair days) plays Dr. Werner Ernst, an ambitious young resident on a state-of-the-art intensive care ward in a major metropolitan hospital. In this womb of stainless steel perfection, patients aren't referred to by name but by the numbers on their beds, which are eerie blue balloon-like mattresses that seem to float in a sort of suspended animation. In fact, the only person on the floor who insists on identifying the "beds" by name is Stella, a worldly-wise nurse played to careworn perfection by Helen Mirren.

Dr. Ernst, whose ideas on the medical arts run to pots of money and plenty of babes, protects himself from the emotional toll of intensive care by hiding behind gallows humor and sarcastic banter with Stella. But his detachment is torn when he meets Felicia (Kyra Sedgwick), a gorgeous blonde whose father -- Bed 5 -- is on life support.

Desperate to put her father out of his misery, Felicia begs Ernst to help her pull the plug, and indeed it does seem the humane thing to do. But first Ernst must get around two formidable forces who want to keep the plug firmly where it is: Felicia's fundamentalist half-sister Connie (Margo Martindale) and Dr. Butz (Brooks), the addled chief of staff who swills tankards of scotch and sees Bed 5 as a cash cow of insurance money.

Things really get interesting when a plot twist puts everyone's motivations into play, with Ernst haplessly circling the vortex: He might have compared himself to a god before, but now, the powers of Solomon would suffice.

"Critical Care," adapted for the screen from a novel by Richard Dooling, threads through its cardinal issues with a gliding, and often funny, grace. Ernst's encounters with Butz are timed with Marx Brothers precision. Sedgwick, in a brave, cheerful performance, provides some very amusing moments as Felicia, a lipsticked, high-heeled thoroughbred of a clothes horse.

In counterpoint to the antic, exaggerated perfidy of these characters, Mirren's nurse stands as a steadfast conscience throughout the wildly overstated tragi-comedy of "Critical Care."

The lovely lines of Mirren's face are as expressive as most peoples' eyes. When she confronts a decision of whether to let a patient go, she makes it a moment of liberation and love, and her understated dignity is an example of just how beautiful and shattering and honest a movie can be.

The syncopation between bald parody and more serious drama doesn't always play in "Critical Care," especially when Wallace Shawn and Anne Bancroft appear as two angels playing for opposing teams. For all the clumsy earnestness with which they're introduced, their messages are mighty ones, and they provide the movie with its powerful -- and unabashedly theocentric -- moral core.

God may not be in the details, but his presence suffuses everything else in "Critical Care," making it one of the more meaningful and delightful surprises of the season.

'Critical Care'

Starring James Spader, Kyra Sedgwick, Helen Mirren, Jeffrey Wright, Albert Brooks

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Released by Live Entertainment

Rated R (language, scene of sexuality)

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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