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‘The Doctor’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 02, 1991

The rap on doctors is that they are aloof, inhuman, weird. The central character in Randa Haines's "The Doctor" is just such a case. Jack, a gifted surgeon who's played brilliantly by William Hurt, is a get-in-and-get-out-quick guy. A surgeon's job, he tells his residents, is to cut, not to care. Emotion, in fact, can get in the way when a patient's life hangs by a thread and what is needed is brisk, reflex execution. Technique, that's what it comes down to. Do your "feeling" on your own time.

Jack isn't a monster, though he may seem like one at first, when he's singing in the operating room and cracking wise over some poor guy's trisected aorta. He specializes in gallows humor (of the sort we saw a lot of in "M*A*S*H") and, standing over a patient who's tried to commit suicide, he feels entitled to make cruel fun of him; he did, after all, save the boy's life. This first part of the film is actually the best section for the star. Hurt is the most modulated of actors, and he shows us here how Jack's cool, sterile manner is a proud skill learned through practice, a true mark of his professionalism. He believes what he tells his residents; it has never occurred to him to believe any differently. He thinks it will make them better doctors.

Then Jack gets sick, and his whole way of thinking is turned upside down. His troubles begin with a little cough, which is soon diagnosed as a cancerous tumor on his larynx. All of a sudden, Jack is on the other end of the stethoscope, being treated by a stone-faced throat specialist in the same curt, dry-ice manner that he used with his own patients -- and he doesn't like it one bit. Nor does he like the hours of waiting, the bureaucracy and the endless pages of official forms. He's a doctor, after all; he shouldn't have to go through the same red tape that the other patients have to deal with. Initially he's outraged and tries to pull rank, which gains him nothing except the disdain of the other patients, most of whom have illnesses far more serious than his own.

One of these patients, June (Elizabeth Perkins), is the key to Jack's emotional awakening. Through June, who has an inoperable brain tumor, Jack is given a window on just how hideously unresponsive the medical establishment can be. With her as his guide, he learns not only how to better cope with his own illness but how to become a more enlightened physician.

Haines, who is working here with a script Robert Caswell adapted from Ed Rosenbaum's autobiographical book, wants her movie to be a damning indictment of the medical profession. Unfortunately, the mechanics of the film are too elementary for it to hit very hard on that level. Early on, she works hard to show how sterile the hospital is, with its sleek, geometric design, how humiliating and dehumanizing its procedures are, and how much it operates like a factory doing assembly line duty, with doctors working so hard to keep pace with their overhead -- the malpractice insurance, in particular -- that "patient-friendly" health care is a virtual impossibility.

But for anyone who's spent time in a hospital, these observations are hardly revelatory. Doctors, like lawyers, make very easy targets; it's like shooting fish in a bedpan. If Haines had unlocked some of the profession's darker closets, the movie might be more noteworthy; as it is, it functions more as a maudlin weeper than an expose.

If it weren't for Hurt, the picture might be completely negligible. His performance is densely layered and detailed. Hurt's mechanics are anything but crude. In a film where the character's dramatic journey is so obvious, he seems always to be working in the subtext, searching for the ambiguities and hidden corners in his subject's emotions and cutting against the main thrust of his scenes. At times his work is so quiet here that we feel as if he's communicating with us by telepathy. It's a mesmerizing performance.

It's also, in its own understated way, a quite powerful performance, but it might have been even stronger if Haines had provided a more resonant context. There are times when the picture takes us down to the bottom of our fears about disease and death, particularly in the scenes with Perkins, who always manages to calibrate her optimism with a barely submerged outrage. But instead of challenging the audience and staying at the dark bottom, Haines reaches for easy uplift. She keeps blunting the force of her own material. With a little more courage, she might have gotten more out of her audience than tears.

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