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‘Doc Hollywood’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 02, 1991


Michael Caton-Jones
Michael J. Fox;
Julie Warner;
Bridget Fonda;
Woody Harrelson;
George Hamilton
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Ben Stone is his own biggest supporter, and it's a good thing. He's in very exclusive company -- a club of one. A fledgling doctor about to complete his residency, he's managed to alienate practically everyone, patient and fellow physician alike, with his talk of future stardom as a plastic surgeon to the rich and famous in nip-'n'-tuck heaven, Beverly Hills. The other residents talk about practicing real medicine, but not Ben. Medicine is fine just so long as it doesn't interfere with his tennis lessons or his pursuit of the perfect backswing -- just so long as he can still wear his shades in the OR.

But not long into "Doc Hollywood," the disarming new comedy starring Michael J. Fox, Ben is rudely awakened from his blissful California dreamin'. While driving cross-country he takes a wrong turn, swerves to miss a couple of cows strolling down a Southern back road, and totals his Porsche. In the process he destroys a white picket fence belonging to the local judge who, not happy to have his labor of love demolished, sentences the young hotshot to 32 hours of public service in the local hospital in Grady, S.C. As the judge reads the sentence, Ben's Hollywood life passes before his eyes. "What is this," he screams, "the Twilight Zone?"

He's not far wrong. Grady, which has two stoplights and whose sole claim to fame is the Grady squash, is Mayberry RFD as Kafka might have imagined it -- at least from Ben's point of view. What he wants most is out, and pronto, but the townspeople have other designs. They have only one doctor, a crotchety old general practitioner named Doc Hogue (Barnard Hughes) who's on his last legs. They need new blood, and as far as they're concerned Ben is it. Money is no object, says Mayor Nicholson (David Ogden Stiers), offering the princely sum of $25,000 a year. All Ben can do is blink in disbelief.

The town does have one other enticement, a lovely ambulance driver named Lou (Julie Warner), and when he first lays eyes on her, emerging nude from the muddy river water like Aphrodite rising from the surf, he can't blink at all. All at once the place doesn't seem half bad. In fact, with Lou as his guide, Ben begins to feel the sleepy rhythms of Grady working their way into his bones. The movie is about the virtues of life in the slow lane; the last place on earth he imagined winding up was in some Hooterville prying fishhooks out of the thumbs of clumsy anglers. But the townspeople of Grady are hilariously relentless; they won't take no for an answer. Kicking and screaming, he finds himself falling in love with the place.

It's the modest, easy-flowing amiability of the town that finally gets to Ben, and it's this languid, small-town spirit that draws us to the movie as well. The picture, which was directed by Michael Caton-Jones, is corny and filled with quaint country eccentrics, but it has a redeeming sweetness of spirit. The residents of Grady aren't merely idiosyncratic. Their oddities are downright surreal, and there's a streak of genuine deviousness in the way they plot to keep Ben in town. They may seem slow-witted, but there's a hog-trader's shrewdness underneath their blackstrap humility.

Fox is perfect for the part of Ben. Everyone in town seems to tower over him; he's like Gulliver in a Hee-Haw Brobdingnag. And none of his big-city talents seems to be of any use to him, especially with Lou, who seems always to know what his next pitch will be before he throws it. Fox is superbly deft at winning over our sympathies to this shallow yuppie fink; he's the best there is at this particular kind of gossamer-light comedy.

But as a good as he is, the key to the film's satisfactions is Warner's Lou. As the divorced mother of a young daughter, Lou is a pragmatist who's had most of the romantic fantasies flushed out of her head by hard times. Lou is something of a tough cookie; she doesn't mince words and she's been around enough to be skeptical of this city slicker. But as she grows closer to Ben, a soulful vulnerability begins to emerge. Warner has some of the same ripe sensuality that Julia Roberts has and, from what she shows here, she may be a better actress. She's as solid as she is lovely, and her strength gives the movie its backbone.

She's also lucky to have such a fine bunch of character actors to play off of. As the town's mayor, Stiers never actually wears a pair of overalls; he's a politician, after all, and has to keep up appearances. But he wears them on the inside. He's the wiliest of bumpkins. There are neat performances by Bridget Fonda and Hughes and a marvelously deadpan turn by Eyde Byrde. Also, as the local insurance broker, Woody Harrelson does a corn pone variation on the character he plays on "Cheers." His wits aren't quick; in fact, the sun sets on him practically every minute, but he manages to get us caught up in the slow-motion meshing of his mental gears.

The film has a message; it's another picture about finding your humanity. But in this case, it's pedaled so softly that it doesn't impose itself on you. Nothing about this movie does. And that, as much as anything, is what makes it so irresistible.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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