Saturday 2 April 2022

Movie Review: The Doctor (1991)

A medical drama, The Doctor is one surgeon's awakening to the patient experience. The film carries earnest intentions, but suffers from limited narrative scope.

In San Francisco, Dr. Jack McKee (William Hurt) is a successful heart surgeon at a private hospital. Arrogant, flippant, and quick to deploy a wicked sense of humour, Jack operates with his business partner Dr. Kaplan (Mandy Patinkin). His marriage to Anne (Christine Lahti) is cold, since they barely see each other because of his hectic schedule.

Jack suffers from an increasingly irritating throat tickle that is finally diagnosed as a cancerous growth on his vocal chords. Under the care of Dr. Leslie Abbott (Wendy Crewson), Jack starts radiation therapy, and is exposed to the medical system from the patient's perspective. Now feeling vulnerable, his arrogant attitude gets him nowhere. He meets brain cancer patient June (Elizabeth Perkins), and his relationship with Anne suffers further. 

Based on the autobiography of Dr. Edward Rosenbaum, The Doctor re-teams star William Hurt with director Randa Haines after the success of 1986's Children Of A Lesser God. The script by Robert Caswell is well-intentioned and Hurt brings the central character to life with reasonable depth, but the straightforward message reaches an evident resolution then stalls.

The first act introduces Jack's glib approach to a successful career, his egotism developed from hours spent inside human bodies, the gift of life in his hands. The second chapter exposes him to the bureaucracy, waiting rooms, indignity, and frustrations experienced by every patient with a serious affliction. For the first time Jack is at the mercy of others inside his own hospital, and his attitude transforms.

Having held the scalpel then been subjected to it, The Doctor unfortunately has few places to go and plenty of time to kill. The film meanders through the final act with nothing really new to say, and stumbles towards a flat resolution. The poorly handled sub-plots don't help. Haines never grabs hold of the dynamic between Jack and Anne, resulting in a tactless emotional showdown. A lawsuit hovering over Jack and his partner Dr. Kaplan remains at the uselessly abstract level. The representation of Dr. Abbott is also wayward. Never less than capable and professional, she somehow ends up on Jack's bad side. 

Brain cancer patient Anne fares better and gains traction as a portal to a more organic and free-spirited perspective on life. Her scenes add poignancy, although mostly from Jack's perspective. John Seale's crisp and sleek cinematography is a positive, infusing the well-financed private medical system with a pristine look matching Jack's early scenes of invulnerable confidence. 

The Doctor always means well, but offers only an obvious diagnosis.

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