1997, R, 109 min. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Starring James Spader, Helen Mirren, Kyra Sedgwick, Albert Brooks, Wallace Shawn, Jeffrey Wright, Anne Bancroft.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 14, 1997
Critical Care should be quickly put out of its misery and tagged clearly with a big “Do Not Resuscitate” order. Sidney Lumet has directed many great films over the years (Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico) and others not so great (The Morning After, The Wiz, and the recent Night Falls on Manhattan), but none of them are as downright godawful as this new one, Lumet's 41st. This comedically edged drama about the inadequacies of the modern medical establishment bludgeons rather than skewers its subject matter. Presumably, Lumet was tempted to this stiff by the Network-like possibilities inherent in Steven Schwartz's script. Both films use major American institutions to stage battles royal between the eternal forces of altruistic agendas versus the almighty dollar. But whereas Network was a focused and barbed assault on the television industry, Critical Care is a heavy-handed and none-too-humorous drubbing of the modern health care system. Schwartz's screenplay makes Paddy Chayefsky's scripts for Network and The Hospital look positively subtle by comparison. At the center of Critical Care is James Spader as Dr. Werner Ernst, a second-year resident working in the ICU unit of a top-flight urban medical center. He jeopardizes the future of his promising career when he follows his penis into an ill-advised sexual liaison with the tempting daughter (Sedgwick) of one of his terminally ill patients. As a result, Ernst becomes a human football yanked between two sisters litigating for control of their father's medical affairs, as well as an unwitting pawn in an extremely profitable and routine insurance scam and servant of a system that knows everything about how to preserve a body through artificial life support but nothing of the reasons why. Helen Mirren brings a large measure of humanity to her role as (apparently) the only nurse on duty in the hospital. Others do not fare as well. A heavily made-up Albert Brooks, as the absent-minded, alcoholic hospital director, Dr. Butz, looks and sounds as though he were Mark Twain performing a vaudeville sketch (in an office in another wing of the hospital that looks nothing like the structure in which everything else takes place). Wallace Shawn has an even stickier task of playing a hallucination, one of Satan's little helpers, complete with bad costume and dreadful dialogue. Transparent as a hospital gown, Critical Care is destined to quickly flatline.