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'Critical Care': Prognosis Good

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 14, 1997

When watching a Sidney Lumet picture, itís advisable to duck repeatedly, lest the social commentary hit you directly in the face. But in "Critical Care," a drily funny satire about Americaís health care woes, the directorís moral sanctimoniousness is in relative remission.

In the intensive care unit of an unnamed, urban hospital, the fate of a comatose old man (Bruno Dessler) hangs in the political balance. His two daughters, who are jointly in charge of deciding whether he lives or dies, have diametrically opposed positions. Felicia (Kyra Sedgwick), a flirtatious, eccentric model, wants to switch off the life support system. Her sister, Connie (Margo Martindale), a Bible-pounder who claims to communicate with her unconscious father, wants to keep him alive.

As far as resident-doctor Werner Ernst (James Spader) is concerned, the only vital signs worth examing are Feliciaís curves. He subtly manipulates Felicia into having dinner with him. But little does he know that Felicia has an entrapment scheme in mind. Though bound by ethics not to express an opinion that could be used in a court of law, Werner gets very passionate that night and very talkative. He learns later, thanks to an incriminating videotape, that Felicia has his career in her hands. All he has to do, she tells him sweetly, is testify in favor of pulling the plug.

Wernerís desperate bid to disentangle himself from this legal noose becomes a conduit for Lumetís (and screenwriter Steven Shwartzís) damning of the American health care system. In this hospital, which is bathed in a sort of inhuman, purgatorial haze of whites and blues, everyone is concerned with money. No one, except for Stella (Helen Mirren), a rather serene nurse, seems concerned about the welfare of those people in the beds. Not unlike Paul Newmanís ambulance-chasing lawyer in Lumetís "The Verdict" -- who must learn to care about his clients, acquire compassion and fight for justice -- Spaderís Werner must learn to care about his patients, acquire compassion and fight for justice.

The movie makes unsuccessful forays into fantasy scenes, most of them seen through the eyes of an ailing patient (Jeffrey Wright) begging to be taken off his life support. So the less said about Wallace Shawn and Anne Bancroftís costumed cameos as -- respectively -- a devil and a nun, the better.

But Mirren, one of Englandís finest actors, makes much of her minor role, as she offers whatever bedside relief she can in this organized hell. And Albert Brooks owns his scenes as Dr. Butz, the cranky, alcoholic, short-term-memory-challenged, certifiable director who analyzes incoming patients in terms of their health insurance, and their ability to remain at the edge of death while incurring continued expenses.

"Itís cash money," he tells Werner on the subject of the life-support patient. "And you want to yank his tubes?"

But Brooks, virtually unrecognizable in old-man makeup, takes the role as far as he can.

"Whereís Miss Ritter," he booms into his intercom.

"Ms. Ritter hasnít been here since 1984," is the reply.

"I didnít say she has," Brooks replies defensively. "Iím just asking where she is."

CRITICAL CARE (R) ó Contains sex scenes, profanity and unsavory details about hospital care.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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